July 29, 2021
Years in the making, amendments ban new coal or oil industries, new shipping terminals at Cherry Point
Kimberly Cauvel

Along with a ban on new fossil fuel-based industries and shipping terminals at the waterfront Cherry Point industrial site, significant changes sought by industries already operating there will also require more intensive permitting. The changes are the result of amendments to the county’s Comprehensive Plan approved unanimously by the Whatcom County Council. (Amy Nelson photo © 2020)

July 29, 2021
Years in the making, amendments ban new coal or oil industries, new shipping terminals at Cherry Point
Kimberly Cauvel

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It’s official: No new oil- or coal-based industries will be allowed at Cherry Point west of Ferndale under Whatcom County’s latest Comprehensive Plan amendments. [Ed. note: edited for clarity around fuel types, Aug. 2, 2021] Significant changes for the fossil fuel-based industries already operating at the waterfront industrial site will also require more intensive permitting. 

“The core of what I think what we’ve got in here are regulations to make sure things like giant crude-by-rail expansions don’t just happen again as permitted uses,” county councilmember Todd Donovan said before a council vote took place Tuesday, July 27.

The council passed the amendments unanimously, following about an hour and a half of public comment and discussion — and about five years of drafting, re-drafting and stakeholder input. 

“This has been probably the longest process that the council has ever seen as far as an item going through all of the different public comments we’ve had … and all of the different changes that have taken place during the last five, six years now,” councilmember Tyler Byrd said.

Embarking on that process was deemed necessary by previous public outcry and nudging from the Lummi Nation, both in response to an increase in oil train traffic to the refineries at Cherry Point and a proposal, later denied by federal regulators because of tribal fishing rights, to build the Gateway Pacific Terminal there to ship U.S. coal to Asia.  

The amendments will take effect for the 7,030-acre Cherry Point Urban Growth Area, also called the Cherry Point Industrial District, after being signed by Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu. The major industrial operations currently permitted at the site include the Phillips 66 Ferndale Refinery, BP Cherry Point Refinery and Petrogas Ferndale Terminal.

The amendments prohibit new fossil fuel refineries and transshipment facilities, coal-fired power plants and over-water infrastructure. The amendments also require conditional use permits, which would go through a State Environmental Policy Act review, for any modifications or expansions that would increase refining capacity by more than 10,000 barrels per day.

‘Start working tomorrow … [in] clean energy’

The goal is to foster the development of greener industries alongside or in place of existing operations. 

A few of the 34 community members who spoke during a public hearing prior to the council vote Tuesday found the amendments lackluster in the face of climate change. Retired physician Sandy Lawrence said there’s an undeniable relationship between the deadly June heat wave that recently baked the Northwest and operations at the Cherry Point oil refineries, which produce greenhouse gas-emitting fuels for cars, planes and other uses. 

“There was a strong relationship to what’s going on at Cherry Point,” Lawrence said. 

Two refineries take center stage in the view across Cherry Point looking north into Canada. (Photo courtesy Simon Bakke, RE Sources)

Bellingham resident Dana Briggs urged the oil companies operating at Cherry Point to take next steps in the clean energy transition into their own hands, in order to act fast enough on climate change. 

“We are totally out of time,” he said. “You need to start working tomorrow — not next week, not next month, not next year — you need to start working tomorrow, to put yourself out of business and move into clean energy.” 

While some spoke about the thousands of jobs, millions of dollars in tax revenue and charitable contributions the refineries provide to public services and community programs, Briggs said that ignores the bigger picture when it comes to climate change. 

“It is going to affect those children that you love and that are on those playgrounds and that you are donating money to at the schools,” he said. “Please do not consider this the end of the process. This is only one step in a long, long process to heal ourselves and heal the planet so that we can all survive.” 

‘Pathway away from fossil fuels’

Even as a first step, many who spoke Tuesday — and dozens more who submitted written comments during July — said the newly passed amendments will make Whatcom County “a U.S. leader in ending risky fossil fuel expansion.” Some called the changes “groundbreaking.” 

Matt Krogh of the environmental nonprofit Stand.Earth said Whatcom County is providing a template for so many other communities that need a pathway to break away from fossil fuels. The world is now moving in a new direction, toward clean energy and low-carbon economies.” 

The majority who commented during the council meeting and in writing also commended the county for turning to a stakeholder committee, including environmental and industry representatives, to fine-tune amendment details and secure general support for the resulting document. (Read more: “Unlikely partners’ compromise will halt new fossil-fuel development at Cherry Point,” Salish Current, Nov. 29, 2021.)

“I’m so impressed with the work this group … has been doing to find that sweet spot, that Goldilocks zone, where not everyone gets what they want, but what they need,” said BP Senior Government Affairs Manager for the West Coast Tom Wolf, who is a resident of Bellingham. “You have the opportunity tonight to vote in favor of respect, in favor of the environment and in favor of jobs.” 

Most comments came from Whatcom and San Juan county residents, with a few from outside areas including Seattle and parts of California. Many hailed the amendments as important steps for the endangered orcas of the Salish Sea and for the global climate, while still preserving jobs at the Cherry Point industrial center.  

Shannon Wright, executive director of the nonprofit RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, said the amendments offer real progress for the environment, regulatory certainty for industry and “communities around the globe with a blueprint they can build on” for striking a balance between the two.  

Whatcom County has been home to the two oil refineries at Cherry Point for decades. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, those refineries are two of five in Washington state and of 126 such facilities across the U.S. The Cherry Point refineries have a combined capacity to produce 347,000 barrels of fuels per day, and, combined with the other three in-state refineries, Washington has the fifth-highest oil refining capacity behind Texas, Louisiana, California and Illinois.

— Reported by Kimberly Cauvel

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