The Whatcom County Council Chambers overflowed with environmentalists and union workers during the open hearing concerning the moratorium, Tuesday, July 9. // Photo by Henry Stewart-Wood
The national debate over the fossil fuel industry and its impact on the environment is heating up in Whatcom County.
Environmentalists and union workers packed the Whatcom County Council chambers on July 9, to attend the council meeting and debate one ordinance: the moratorium on expanding facilities at the Cherry Point industrial zone.
The council approved the ordinance, continuing a temporary prohibition on all permits and applications for expansions of facilities at the Cherry Point heavy industrial zone, according to the council’s agenda.
“The plans that have been put forward for Cherry Point have the potential to cost our members’ jobs and have devastating consequences for our families,” Trevor Smith, Local 292’s business agent, said.
This is the seventh time the council has approved this temporary measure while it drafts new permanent codes regulating industries at Cherry Point.
The main purpose of the moratorium is to prevent the shipment of unrefined fossil fuels out of the county, according to the ordinance. However, workers said the ordinance prohibits companies from maintaining their existing facilities and making safety upgrades.
The Cherry Point industrial zone is one of the county’s largest employers with over 3,000 employees according to 2019 research done by Western professor Hart Hodges, James McCafferty and Allison Rucker.
The three largest companies operating at the Cherry Point –BP, Alcoa Aluminum and Phillips 66 – produce just under 4 million metric tons of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The council chambers, with a maximum capacity of 200, were full. Audience members stood at the back of the chambers and in the courthouse foyer to view the meeting. For nearly two hours dozens of people representing both interests gave testimony hoping the council would vote in their favor.
Those opposed to the ordinance wore orange and were mainly Cherry Point workers who belong to the Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 292. The workers opposed the ordinance, claiming it was detrimental to the county’s economy and put their livelihoods in jeopardy.
The jobs at Cherry Point are well-paying and support a large portion of the county’s economy, according to Hodges’ research.
The average income of a Cherry Point worker in 2017 was $110,690 which, according to Hodges’ research, is 243% higher than the 2017 average income in the county of $45,491. Hodges’ research also shows that Cherry Point indirectly supports 11% of all jobs in the county.
Hodges’ research states that the addition or loss of 50 jobs in the petroleum manufacturing industry would result in the addition or loss of 174 jobs across the county.
Environmentalists at the meeting wore red shirts and supported the ordinance, citing the environmental hazards associated with the operation of oil refineries and their contribution to climate change.
“It seems to me that the essential responsibility of government is to protect its citizens and the environment they live in so that it can be safely utilized by future generations,” Bellingham resident Warren Sheay said. “I’m here tonight to urge you to do the temporary six-month moratorium.”
The overwhelming consensus in the scientific community is that greenhouse gasses contribute to climate change, according to NASA. The debate over Cherry Point is happening at a time when the concentration of carbon dioxide is at a record high.
The environmentalists who spoke to the council are part of a larger, worldwide movement against the use of fossil fuels, concerned with the damage they do to the environment.
The two groups are not completely at odds with each other, union members and environmentalists said at the council meeting.
“You see red shirts in here and you see a lot of orange shirts in here and you might not see how much we all really do have that we agree on,” Alex Ramel, an environmentalist working for Stand.Earth, said. “We live here in this community, we value it, we value a prosperous economy and we value a healthy environment.”
The Local 292 workers at Cherry Point acknowledged the facts of climate change and the role their industry plays. Similarly, many environmentalists who spoke acknowledged the importance of the jobs at Cherry Point, not only for the workers but also for the entire county.
Smith said that the union wants the transition to green energy to be smooth and fair for his fellow union members and other workers in the sector.
“We want to see regulations that allow improvements towards cleaner energy and a just transition,” Smith said. “We realize fossil fuels are going away.”
Despite their differences, the workers and environmentalists have been reviewing the draft legislation together to find common ground and points they think need improvement according to Ramel and Smith.
“A number of us have been sitting down together to identify what that common ground is, and I look forward to sending you a complete list of the changes to the rules in front of you that we agree on,” Ramel said to the council.
Environmentalists and union workers said they agree that Cherry Point should not export unrefined crude oil and that the companies operating there should be as environmentally friendly as possible.
“While we support the industries out at Cherry Point, we do not want to see these refineries turned into offshore terminals for unrefined oil,” Local 292 apprentice Hannah Holt said. “What we are asking you to do is to allow refineries to operate in the safest and cleanest manner possible.”
The ordinance passed with a 5-1 vote, Council Member Barbara Brenner voted no and Council Member Tyler Byrd was absent.
The moratorium will be in place for six months. Both groups said they hope the council will have developed a permanent set of regulations for Cherry Point that satisfies both interests by the time the moratorium ends.