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Whatcom County Became First U.S. Refinery Community to Ban New Fossil Fuel Infrastructure

July 29, 2021: A county on the northwest coast of Washington State made a landmark decision to ban new fossil fuel development, reversing a trajectory that had it on course to become a gateway for oil, gas, and coal exports to Asia.

“At its weekly meeting, the Whatcom County Council voted to approve an overhaul of local land use policies, allowing existing refineries to expand but prohibiting new refineries, transshipment facilities, coal plants, piers, or wharfs in its coastal industrial zone,” Inside Climate News reports. “The new rules also require a public review of the environmental impact of any significant expansion at existing refineries and other facilities, including any increase in greenhouse gas emissions.”

In the wake of the vote, “there will be no new refineries, they won’t be able to get permits to export their product, and while we will still have these dinosaur facilities already here, it will be more challenging for them to expand,” said second-term councillor Todd Donovan, one of the driving forces behind the new rule. “The future is clearly in renewable energy.”

He added that the motion responded to growing public alarm about the impacts of climate change, in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

“We just had our hottest day on record a few days ago, the salmon are disappearing, the glaciers are melting so much that you look at Mount Baker near here and you see bare rock where there used to be ice,” he said. “With all the fires and the heat, people are connecting the dots that this is climate change caused by fossil fuels. It has galvanized them.”

The decision marks a rapid shift from just a few years ago, when “the BP and Phillips 66 refineries in Ferndale, Washington—about 100 miles north of Seattle—were building new receiving facilities for oil trains to deliver crude from the Bakken shale fields of North Dakota,” Inside Climate recalls. “Tar sands oil from Canada also was coming in, with plans looming to expand pipeline capacity. And, most significantly, the nation’s largest coal export terminal was set to be built just to the south in Bellingham, expected to unload 15 coal trains weekly that would rumble into the county from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.”

Less than a decade later, this week’s decision was driven by county council members who were pulled into elected politics by the local controversy over the coal terminal. Campaigners in Whatcom “say it is the first time a local government in the United States has utilized land use law to impose such a broad, permanent ban on fossil fuel development,” Inside Climate writes.

“We don’t have the authority to regulate interstate commerce, and we have not attempted to do so,” said Rud Browne, one of the county councillors behind the six-year effort to get the new rules in place. “But we had a deep concern about the increased transshipment of fossil fuels through Puget Sound, and also through the downtown core of two of our major cities.”

The Cherry Point industrial zone in Whatcom “is home to two of the state’s five oil refineries and is a significant source of tanker traffic in the Salish Sea,” Stand.earth said in a release Wednesday. But “these regulations could usher in a new era of fossil fuel policy-making in the U.S., where local municipalities can use existing regulatory power to restrict the growth of the fossil fuel industry in an era where the U.S. must swiftly transition to renewable energy sources.”

“Whatcom County residents are now safer from threats like increased oil train traffic or more polluting projects at existing refineries,” Donovan said in the release. “When people ask local leaders to address their concerns, this is how it should be done—with input from all affected communities and industries, but without watering down the solutions that are most protective of public safety, the climate, and our waterways.”

“This is a landmark victory for the local communities who have stood up and held firm for over a decade to protect the climate, the Salish Sea, and their own health and safety from risky and reckless fossil fuel expansion projects,” said Shannon Wright, executive director of RE Sources, an environmental non-profit based in Bellingham.

But “there’s more to be done,” she added, “including addressing the pollution burden borne by local communities, in particular Lummi Nation, who live in close proximity to existing heavy industry and fossil fuel operations, and continuing to counter the threat of increased vessel traffic across the region.”

Whatcom’s new policy still offers other municipalities “a roadmap for how they can enact stronger regulations to protect public health and vulnerable populations and local ecosystems, prevent the expansion of the fossil fuel industry, and expedite the transition to a clean energy economy in an era of accelerating climate change,” Stand adds.

Stand has background on decades of fossil industry expansion at Cherry Point, a place called Xwe’chi’eXen by members of the Lummi Nation who’ve seen it as part of their “ancestral land, waters, and fishing grounds since time immemorial”.

Inside Climate traces a “decade-long battle over control of Whatcom County government, in which both the fossil fuel industry and environmental groups poured hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funding. The coal industry used dark money groups, and even got involved in a fight over redistricting that threatened to dilute the power of coastal cities to choose county-elected officials.”

Leading up to the final decision, “representatives of the oil industry, labour unions, and environmental groups all spoke in favour of the compromise package the council developed after intensive negotiations among all the local stakeholders,” ICN says. “The new rules are designed to allow the current refineries to expand and modify their plants, while barring new fossil fuel facilities and export infrastructure. The council voted unanimously in favour of the package, after a brief, dramatic hesitation by council member Ben Elenbaas, who once had likened the tactics of a local environmental group to ‘domestic terrorism’.”

The Guardian says the local fossil lobby still spoke up for its own continuing presence in Whatcom. “Washington’s energy industry believes that ongoing capital investment into existing refinery operations is necessary to ensure the safe, state-of-the-art, clean production of transportation fuels,” said Holli Johnson, manager of north-west external affairs for the Western States Petroleum Association. She cast her members as a “primary driver of economic growth and prosperity” that help fund local schools and health care through their taxes.

Despite the win in the northwest, politicians at the other end of the country are moving backwards on fossil fuel regulation. After Tampa City Councilman Joseph Citro introduced a non-binding resolution calling for a ban on new fossil fuel infrastructure, the gas lobby got to work—and before long, state Senator Travis Hutson had introduced a measure to ban cities from regulating energy systems or fuel sources, Grist reports

Even after Citro withdrew the resolution, Hutson pushed his legislation through, and it was signed into law by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis.