By James Ellis
Casual conversations filled the Whatcom County Council Chambers with a low rumble Tuesday, Jan. 29 as people waited for the hearing to begin.
The council met to vote on the extension of a moratorium on fossil fuel exports from refineries in Cherry Point, northwest of Bellingham. The council also passed amendments to an ordinance that would allocate funds to research legal ways to limit any damage to the public or environment caused by fossil fuel refineries at Cherry Point.
The council voted 5-2 to prolong the moratorium for another six months. This is the sixth extension of the moratorium since it was first enacted in August 2016, after the council first brought forth concerns over federal regulations on fossil fuel production.
The meeting to discuss the fate of the fossil fuel refineries at Cherry Point began at 7 p.m., and public input lasted until after 10 p.m..
The division of opinion among the crowd was immediately apparent: many of those in support of the bill wore red and many of those against it wore orange. This coordination from both sides would appropriately color the passions that flared over the course of the hearing.
Among those who supported the moratorium, most were concerned with public and environmental safety, they said. Attendees repeatedly brought up the dangers of transportation, such as train crashes and pipeline explosions. Two cited the Olympic Pipeline explosion of 1999 that led to the death of Liam Wood, Wade King and Stephen Tsiovas.
“Safety is more important than money and profits and jobs,” Bellingham resident Warren Sheay said. “Lives are more important than money and profits and jobs. Fossil fuels are dangerous. The moratorium must continue until safety is assured. The 1999 explosion must never happen again.”
Many discussed the effects of pollution on climate change and the environment, especially its effect on local marine wildlife and ecosystems.
“It is clear that the orcas and the estuaries that need to survive are not the only endangered species,” Jean Carmean, another Bellingham resident, said. “It is we, our children and our grandchildren, who will be diminished, and it is we who can change, if not entirely reverse, environmental damage.”
Others argued about the state of technology, how fossil fuels are unsustainable and how industries have begun to phase them out in favor of more sustainable energy sources.
Those opposed to the moratorium, notably refinery employees and contractors, expressed concerns for local jobs, businesses and economy in Whatcom County.
For most community members, job security for their friends and job opportunity for their families was the primary concern.
Antonio Machado, a resident of Ferndale and employee at the Phillips 66 oil refinery at Cherry Point, also expressed views on this subject. Machado called Cherry Point the “job center of the county,” with 11 percent of all county jobs directly or indirectly related to Cherry Point industrial activities.
According to a 2014 study by faculty at Western and the University of Washington, the Cherry Point Industrial Zone alone accounted for 2.5 percent of the total job base in Whatcom County (roughly 2,100-2,200 jobs), and the Cherry Point area directly or indirectly supported roughly 11 percent of the jobs in Whatcom County (roughly 9,000 out of 84,000).
In addition to providing jobs, Machado said the Cherry Point industries pay over $200 million in taxes annually. Several people voiced their concerns over the fate of that tax revenue, should the moratorium drive away the Cherry Point industries.
Many community members were also concerned that the strict permit process for the refinery would repel other businesses.
“I don’t see any reason why any business would want to come to Whatcom County with this kind of proposal,” Whatcom County resident Max Perry said of the budget proposal. “It’s just unreasonable.”
Those who did not discuss jobs talked about the environment, from the products and environmentally-friendly policies at the refineries to the burden of responsibility over climate change.
With their current course of action, a $150,000 survey conducted by the Cascadia Law Group will determine Whatcom Council’s ability to legally address negative consequences of the fossil fuel industry. They have budgeted $75,000 so far.
Ultimately, many people on both sides of the issue called for more transparency in their decision-making process and more meticulous planning to respect all parties involved.
Steve Garey, a retired refinery worker, expressed this very sentiment.
“I would encourage the council to take the time for due diligence to get this important language right,” Garey said. “The council has a responsibility to support both economic opportunity and environmental protection. The community needs both.”