By Jessica Corbett
In a move that comes as wildfires ravage the Western United States and could serve as a model for communities nationwide, the Whatcom County Council in Washington voted unanimously on Tuesday night to approve new policies aimed at halting local fossil fuel expansion.
“Whatcom County’s policy is a blueprint that any community, including refinery communities, can use to take action to stop fossil fuel expansion.”
—Matt Krogh, Stand.earth
“For too long, the fossil fuel industry has been allowed to cloak its infrastructure and expansion projects in an air of inevitability,” said Matt Krogh, director of Stand.earth’s SAFE Cities Campaign. “It has used this to diminish local communities’ concerns and then dismiss or ignore their voices. Whatcom County’s new, permanent policy is a clear signal that those days are over.”
“Local communities and their elected officials do have the power to decide what gets built near their homes, schools, and businesses,” Krogh continued. “Whatcom County’s policy is a blueprint that any community, including refinery communities, can use to take action to stop fossil fuel expansion.”
The area has a deep-water port and two oil refineries. It’s zoned for industrial use. It sits adjacent to waterways that connect the Northwest to lucrative markets across the Pacific Rim. It’s also where what would have been the nation’s largest coal export facility—the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal—was canceled five years ago.
…Five years ago, the Army Corps of Engineers pulled the plug on Gateway Pacific proposal after the Lummi Tribe argued it would violate treaty fishing rights. The land at Cherry Point is adjacent to waters that are at the heart of the tribe’s usual and accustomed fishing area. And the state has designated that area an aquatic reserve.
Since that project’s demise, the council has enacted 11 six-month moratoriums. Tuesday’s vote permanently bannednew refineries, shipping terminals, or coal-fired power plants at Cherry Point and imposed tougher regulations on any expansion of the area’s existing facilities.
The Bellingham Herald notes that while the five-year battle pitted the oil industry against environmentalists, “talks took a key step forward after the appointed county Planning Commission approved the Cherry Point amendments and a ‘stakeholder group’ of business and environmental interests began meeting to build a consensus over its final wording.”
“From the onset of the process five years ago, the County Council had set forth clear aims for new rules that would allow improvements of existing refineries while restricting facilities’ use for transshipment of fossil fuels,” Eddy Ury, a council candidate who led the stakeholders group for months while he was with the environmental group RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, told the newspaper.
“These dual purposes proved to be challenging to balance in lawmaking without overstepping authority,” Ury said. “The stakeholder group came together at the point where our respective interests were best served by cooperating.”
In a statement Wednesday, RE Sources executive director Shannon Wright welcomed the vote.
“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 Wright.
“There’s more to be done,” Wright 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.”
“When people ask local leaders to address their concerns, this is how it should be done.”
—Whatcom County Councillor Todd Donovan
Still, Whatcom County Councillor Todd Donovan celebrated that local residents “are now safer from threats like increased oil train traffic or more polluting projects at existing refineries.”
“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,” he said.
Stand.earth’s statement pointed out that the development comes as residents and activists in Tacoma, Washington are pushing for similar protections.
In a tweet about the vote in Whatcom County, the Tacoma arm of the environmental group 350.org said that it is “still waiting for Tacoma City Council to find courage to do the same here.”
The fights for local regulations on fossil fuels come as communities across the West endure the impacts of the human-created climate emergency—from deadly, record-breaking heat to ferocious fires. In Washington state alone, there are currently eight large active fires that have collectively burned 136,758 acres.
Conditions in the U.S. West, along with fires in Siberia and flooding across China and Europe, have fueled demands for bolder climate policy on a global scale. Parties to the Paris agreement—which aims to keep global temperature rise this century below 2°C, and preferably limit it to 1.5°C—are set to attend a two-week United Nations climate summit in Glasgow beginning October 31.
Editor’s note: this article originally appeared on Common Dreams
Image credit: Matt Brown