By Alex Ramel
Whatcom County has spent the last few years grappling with local decisions over the role that coal, crude oil and fossil fuel export will play in our economic future and what that will mean for the environment, the community, our neighbors and other businesses in the region. It's been an electoral issue every November since at least 2011. 2017 won't be any different. Most readers in Whatcom will have seen the “Preserve Cherry Point Jobs” yard signs that have been popping up. And while that top-level message of protecting local jobs is easy to agree with, it's worth digging a bit deeper to understand that unrefined fossil fuel export actually threatens refinery workers as well as the fishing industry, tourism and many other parts of our local economy.
The policies recently passed by Whatcom County Council only prevent new facilities that would export crude oil and other unrefined fossil fuels. Keeping the unrefined product here keeps the refining work here. Cherry Point jobs are far more secure with these policies than they would be without. You don't have to take it from me, the United Steelworkers who represents the workers at 4 of the 5 refineries in Washington issued a press release in 2015 saying:
Job loss in the U.S. refining sector and all the jobs dependent on it would result from the lifting of the crude oil export ban. The ban has allowed U.S. refineries to compete against foreign competitors with lower labor, environmental and safety standards. Lift the ban and the cost of crude oil rises for U.S. refineries, thrusting them into direct competition with refineries in China and India. The end result is the shutdown of refineries and loss of U.S. jobs.
For the local workers, and the local companies that do business with the refineries, the risk of shipping oil oversees should be at the front of our minds. Big oil worked hard to lift the crude export ban because they are eager to get cheap labor and reduced health and safety regulations oversees. Maximizing oil industry profits is not the same thing as protecting oil worker jobs.
Even though the immediate threat of the coal export terminal has passed, there are still numerous proposed pipeline, oil train and natural gas export facilities that are actively being contemplated for Whatcom County. The environmental impact of these projects could be catastrophic. If all of the projects I've seen proposed were built it would more than triple the carbon footprint of the entire state of Washington and lead to massive increase in risk of oil spills and other disasters.
Fortunately, the Whatcom County Council majority has recognized this risk, found the middle ground, and made smart decisions that protect the community -- and our neighbors on the rail lines and on the Salish Sea -- from the risks of more exploding oil trains, spilling oil tankers and the damage and pollution that could come from a new coal, crude oil or natural gas terminal proposal.
Alex Ramel is a resident of Bellingham and an advocate for clean energy policies. He's volunteered in one capacity or another on most of the local elections in Whatcom County for the past ten years.