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Whatcom county stakeholders fight for canceled renewable diesel facility

By Teya Heidenreich

After over a year of planning, the Green Apple Renewable Fuels facility in Ferndale and 750 jobs were canceled. Legislators, laborers and environmentalists are now scrambling to pinpoint what went wrong and save the project.

The Green Apple Renewable Fuels facility was a partnership between Phillips 66, a company which owns a crude oil refinery in Ferndale in the Cherry Point industrial zone, and Renewable Energy Group (REG), a producer of biodiesel and renewable diesel.

The renewable diesel plant was to be built next to the existing Phillips 66 Refinery and produce about 250 million gallons of fuel made from animal fats and recycled cooking oils each year, said Tim Johnson, director of public governmental affairs for the Phillips 66 Refinery.

The project was canceled because of permitting delays and extensions over two years, Johnson said. Whatcom County Councilmembers and Bellingham environmental group RE Sources said this explanation is misleading because the permitting process never really changed.

In November 2018, the Green Apple project was announced as a joint venture. Scott Hedderich, executive director of corporate affairs for REG, said it was natural for REG to co-locate a facility where there was already an existing refinery because renewable diesel plants are so expensive to construct.

When the Whatcom County Department of Ecology announced the public process for review of the project, it required an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), Johnson said.

“The purpose of an environmental review is to fully understand a project’s probable, significant, adverse, environmental impacts, and then determine if those probable impacts can be mitigated,” the Washington State Department of Ecology wrote in a statement released after the cancellation. The environmental review of the Green Apple proposal was just days into its scoping period where the public was given its first opportunity to comment on the proposal’s potential environmental impacts [when the project was canceled],” the statement said.

The Washington State Department of Ecology declined an interview request, but provided the statement.

“It basically added two additional years for permitting,” Johnson said, extending the plant’s opening until 2024. He added that because of competition in the renewable diesel market, extending the timeline would put the plant at a disadvantage against other plants that were already existing or planned.

Eddy Ury, climate and energy policy manager at RE Sources, an environmental nonprofit in Bellingham, disputed Phillips 66’s explanation.

“This is 100% the oil company's decision and it's not the fault of any government,” Ury said. “Permits were pretty much guaranteed to be approved by 2021. Them saying they were delayed until 2024 is definitely a stretch.”

Ury said that even if construction was delayed into 2024, it would still be a good business decision because of “virtually limitless demand” for renewable diesel, which is interchangeable with conventional petroleum diesel in any engine.

Among those protesting the Green Apple project’s cancellation were Sen. Doug Ericksen (R-Whatcom County), the environmental group RE Sources, the Whatcom County Council, and labor groups including Washington Laborers Union Local 292.

Members of the Local 292 union attended the Whatcom County Council meeting on Jan. 28, a week after the project’s cancellation. The laborers union represents construction workers in many Washington counties and members hoped to be employed by the Green Apple project. During the public comment period, Trevor Smith, business agent of the union and a Bellingham resident, said the project was forecast to create many jobs for laborers.

“We expected to have up to 100 full-time, family wage jobs to run this facility,” Johnson said. “And for the construction phase, when they're actually building the facility, they were estimating that we'd have up to 650 construction jobs that they won't be able to provide at this point. That's a real impact to our local job market.”

Smith said the county told REG during their original presentation that “they would be required to meet the as-yet-to-be-defined permitting process that the planning commission was working through. It was also expressed that the county wasn’t exactly clear since the process was going and the moratoriums were in place, what permits were going to be needed.”

Smith said this is why Phillips 66 ultimately withdrew its permit application.

A moratorium is a temporary ban on an activity. Throughout 2019, Whatcom County Council amended the Cherry Point Urban Growth Area Comprehensive Plan to restrict certain fossil fuel activities in collaboration with Cascadia Law Group, an environmental attorney group.

The Whatcom County Council discussed Green Apple at length during the meeting Tuesday. Councilmember Tyler Byrd put forward a resolution to try to streamline the permitting process for renewable energy projects and see if the council could get the involved partners “back to the table.”

Byrd said he was concerned that the cancellation was a missed opportunity to create jobs and move toward environmental friendliness.

Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu noted that the permitting process has not changed.

“If they had applied for a similar project maybe five, seven, eight years ago, they would have received the same treatment,” he said. Sidhu said the planning department had worked quickly, and the assumption that the project will be delayed two years is not necessarily true.

Other members of the council questioned whether Whatcom County is a welcoming environment for clean energy projects. Councilmember Ben Elenbaas said businesses need more certainty than what the Whatcom County Council has been able to provide. He said businesses encountered uncertainty about whether certain things fell under moratoriums are not.

“I like this resolution because it says that we’re committed to solving some of the problems and putting forth certainty,” Elenbaas said. “And not just moving the bar here, there, moratorium this, emergency ban that. We're either committed or we're not.”

Other councilmembers were less patient with Phillips 66.

Rud Browne said that the permitting process hadn’t changed in 15 years and that Phillips 66 should not complain that a billion-dollar project would require an open public process. He said the need for permitting was triggered by the Department of Ecology’s concerns about increased vessel traffic, not anything the council had done in the past few months.

“Can we say with a straight face that they did not know this would be a major project permit?” councilmember Todd Donovan asked. “Yeah, the permit was dropped. The permit was under the same rules as have existed for years, and as soon as there’s gonna be an EIS or a SEPA review then apparently they pull out.”

The State Environmental Policy Act, or SEPA, process “identifies and analyzes environmental impacts associated with governmental decisions,” according to the Washington State Department of Ecology website.

After amending the language of Byrd’s resolution, it passed unanimously with the wording:

“NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Whatcom County Council will work with the County Executive and County Planning department to create an expedited permitting process and try to define legal uncertainties for all renewable energy projects, including the Green Apple project.”

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