The U.S. needs a blueprint for ending fossil fuel expansion. With a historic vote, this refinery community just enacted one.

In Whatcom County, WA, a community-led process has delivered a landmark policy protecting against 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, Campaign Director for Stand.earth’s SAFE Cities movement

In the northwestern corner of Washington state, Whatcom County has just become the first county in the nation to pass a policy permanently prohibiting new fossil fuel refineries, piers, and transshipment facilities, while enacting groundbreaking new restrictions on existing fossil fuel facilities’ abilities to expand. More than five years in the making, the new, permanent land-use policy is a major victory for a community that has for years been targeted with proposed fossil fuel development projects.

Whatcom County has two of Washington state’s five oil refineries located in its Cherry Point industrial area and is thus a major source of tanker traffic in the Salish Sea. Cherry Point is one of eight state-protected aquatic reserves in Washington, and its significant species include imperiled salmon, herring (a key food source for salmon), and the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale population.

On July 27, the Whatcom County Council voted unanimously to approve this landmark climate policy, which means no new fossil fuel refineries, transshipment facilities, or certain types of other infrastructure expansions can be built, while upgrade projects at existing refineries and terminals will also be subject to more rigorous environmental review and permitting processes.

A pier operated by oil giant BP is located at Cherry Point in Whatcom County, WA. Image courtesy: Stand.earth

This is unprecedented in the U.S. No other community has enacted a policy that can rival Whatcom County’s new law in terms of scope, permanent duration, impact on potential projects, as well as the scale of existing facilities that are covered under the regulations. But it’s so much more than that. These new regulations could usher in a new era of fossil fuel policymaking in the U.S., where local municipalities can use existing regulatory power to restrict the growth of the fossil fuel industry in a time where the U.S. must swiftly transition to renewable energy sources.

Stand.earth’s SAFE Cities movement is using this as a climate policymaking model for other communities that are facing the threat of fossil fuel expansion.

So, this is just the beginning. These policies offer refinery communities throughout the U.S. a roadmap for how they can enact stronger regulations to protect public health and vulnerable populations and local ecosystems, prevent the expansion of the fossil fuel industry, and expedite the transition to a clean energy economy in an era of accelerating climate change.

For too long, the fossil fuel industry has been allowed to cloak its infrastructure and expansion projects in an air of inevitability,” said SAFE Cities Campaign Director Matt Krogh. “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. Whatcom County’s policy is a blueprint that any community, including refinery communities, can use to take action to stop fossil fuel expansion.”

The journey to get to this moment started five years ago, when community members, following the leadership of Lummi Nation, helped prevent a massive coal export terminal proposed at Cherry Point. Since then, Bellingham-based environmental nonprofit RE Sources and the SAFE Cities movement have worked to build public support for stronger policies alongside local community members and environmental advocates, county elected officials and staff, while consulting closely with labor unions, and fossil fuel industry representatives.

“Whatcom County residents are now safer from threats like increased oil train traffic or more polluting projects at existing refineries,” said Whatcom County Councillor Todd Donovan. “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.”

The Phillips 66 refinery in Whatcom County’s Cherry Point industrial area. Image courtesy: RE Sources/Simon Bakke

While these policies are an important step in the right direction, greater action by the County will be needed to address the pollution burden borne by local communities, in particular Lummi Nation, who live in close proximity to heavy industry and fossil fuel operations. Remedying local environmental injustices that have persisted for decades will need to be an ongoing campaign for concerned community members and elected officials.

“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 Shannon Wright, executive director for RE Sources. “There’s more to be done, 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.”

There’s also more work to do to spread the ripple effect of Whatcom County’s policy near and far — in the Pacific Northwest and around the U.S. Tacoma will be an important place to turn attention to: Community members, environmental advocates, and others are currently pushing for similar permanent protections from fossil fuel expansions in the Tacoma Tideflats industrial area, which is the site of the U.S. Oil & Refining Co. refinery.

Join the SAFE Cities movement and learn about all the tools you have to make your own community SAFE from fossil fuel expansion.

We challenge corporations and governments to treat people and the environment with respect, because our lives depend on it. www.stand.earth