County council temporarily bans new permits for shipping unrefined fossil fuels

By Oliver Lazenby

Whatcom County Council unanimously approved an emergency moratorium on new applications and permits for new or expanded unrefined oil and coal export facilities at Cherry Point at its August 9 meeting. The moratorium will last 60 days and council must hold a public hearing on it in that time.

The moratorium allows local refineries to continue refining and exporting oil, but bans new projects that would ship oil before refining it, cutting refinery workers out of the equation.

The decision came after two hours of public comments from environmentalists, refinery workers and Native American rights advocates that were largely focused on threats to fisheries, safety risks to crude oil traveling by rail and the loss of local jobs that could accompany a shift from refining to exporting – issues that are often raised at council meetings.

“I want to make it clear to the workers that this is not intended to affect the existing refineries,” councilmember Rud Browne said at the meeting. The council added language to the moratorium to allow refineries to ramp up oil export if, for example, they have to close for a period and need to ship crude oil or other fuels elsewhere.

In July, councilmember Carl Weimer proposed an amendment that would ban unrefined oil, coal and natural gas shipments from the Cherry Point Urban Growth Area as part of the county’s 20-year comprehensive plan update.

Over concerns that the issue needed more public process, council voted on July 26 to send the proposal to the county’s planning commission, which will study the issue and make a recommendation to the council before January 17.

The emergency moratorium will prevent new permits from being filed before the council makes its decision.

In December 2015, U.S. congress and President Barack Obama repealed a 40-year ban on crude oil exports.  The decision allows oil companies to find cheaper refineries overseas, cutting costs at the expense of American jobs.

When oil came from much nearer the earth’s surface, the U.S. was a net importer of oil. In recent years, as that oil dried up and hydraulic fracturing – commonly called fracking – has allowed the extraction of oil trapped thousands of feet beneath the ground, the U.S. become a net exporter of refined oil.

The cities of Vancouver and Hoqiuam, Washington, both have similar moratoriums in place as a result of oil export projects proposed in those communities.

County council has enacted several other temporary moratoriums in the past, including on new applications for marijuana businesses, new development on Lake Whatcom and new applications for wind power development.

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