The U.S.’s First-Ever Fossil Fuel Infrastructure Ban Is Even More Important Than It Seems

The U.S.’s First-Ever Fossil Fuel Infrastructure Ban Is Even More Important Than It Seems
Photo: Ted S. Warren, AP

A refinery community in Washington passed a ban on constructing new fossil fuel infrastructure, becoming the first county in the U.S. to enact such a policy. It’s a policy exactly in line with what science has shown is necessary to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

On Tuesday evening, Whatcom County’s council approved a land use ordinance to permanently prohibit the approval of any new refineries, coal plants, piers, wharves, and transshipment facilities for fossil fuels. The council did so due to these facilities’ harmful impacts on water ecosystems, air quality, and the climate. The measure also puts new restrictions on existing fossil fuel facilities, including a requirement that if any of them expand, operators offset the equivalent of any additional greenhouse gases emitted.

Whatcom County, which is in northwest Washington, has been a fossil fuel hub for decades. Its Cherry Point port complex in Ferndale, Washington is home to two of the state’s five oil refineries, which are operated by BP and Phillips 66, respectively. Oil and gas pipelines, heavy rail lines, and a propane export facility also run through the county to serve the refineries.

“The two oil refineries are an important economic presence in the county,” said Matt Krogh, a campaigner at the environmental advocacy nonprofit Stand.earth who lives in Whatcom County, said in an email.

In an effort to curb toxic and planet-warming emissions, residents have been fighting against fossil fuel activity at Cherry Point for years. In 2011, a massive coal export facility that would have brought 50 million tons of coal per year through the port, was proposed for the complex. But under an 1855 treaty with the federal government, the local Lummi Nation has rights to the land on which Cherry Point sits — they know the region as Xwe’chi’eXen. Fearing that the project would threaten local marine ecosystems, they led a fight against the coal plant. In 2016 the proposal was shot down.

But more proposals for fossil fuel infrastructure kept coming organisers were tired of taking on each individual proposal to build new polluting projects. They started to look for more permanent solutions.

“Fatigue from fighting a succession of proposals led to this effort to prevent new projects from even being proposed,” said Krogh.

In 2016, the county council passed an emergency moratorium on permitting for new fossil fuel infrastructure, which also appropriated funds for a legal study of what the county could legally do to constrain fossil fuels using land use authorities. The new permanent ordinance stems from what officials learned from that study.

BP, Phillips 66, and Intalco (the third-largest company at Cherry Point) paid an estimated $US14.7 ($20) million in property taxes, show just how engrained the fossil fuel industry is in the county. It’s a fate similar to other fossil fuel producing and refining hubs. That county leaders are putting their foot down on new fossil fuel infrastructure points to a potential path forward for other communities in the same boat. The decision of one county could also reach much further than Whatcom’s 2,500 square miles (6,475 square kilometers).

“What is especially significant about Whatcom County is that, in addition to having existing refineries, its Cherry Point region has long been a planned destination for projects that would ship fossil fuels,” Pete Erickson, the climate policy director at the Stockholm Environmental Institute, said in an email. “This ordinance puts an end to that. It could therefore have a chilling effect on plans for expanding oil and gas extraction in the source of these fuels: Western Canada and the Williston Basin of North Dakota.”

Though this is the first time a county has used land use law to ban new oil and gas infrastructure, it comes as part of a multi-year wave of measures in the Pacific Northwest to fight fossil fuels in a more targeted manner. In 2016, Portland, Oregon used land use authority to ban new bulk storage of oil. And officials in Tacoma, Washington is currently considering a ban on new fossil fuel infrastructure in a major industrial zone called the Tideflats.

Other cities have passed smaller measures, including Petaluma, California, which became the first place in the U.S. to ban new gas stations earlier this year. Greenland, meanwhile, has banned new oil and gas exploration. At the time, the Greenland government rightly noted “The future does not lie in oil. The future belongs to renewable energy, and in that respect we have much more to gain.”

There are also other pushes afoot to end fossil fuel subsidies, which essentially incentivise dangerous behaviour and in some cases, even line the pockets of oil companies. Erickson and two other colleagues authored a paper published on Thursday showing that with oil prices at their current values (that’s about around $US70 ($95) per barrel), subsidies are basically a form of pure profit for fossil fuel companies. Ending them and also using regulations to constrain the industry are both vital.

“We know that we need to rapidly phase out fossil fuel production and use, so why continue to incentivise new investments and drilling with public money? At the same time, we also know that fossil fuel production will continue unabated without major policy interventions, so bans on new infrastructure is an important lever, which several other countries have started to put in place over the last ten years.”

Whatcom County and these other jurisdictions’ decisions very much align with research showing the world needs to eliminate fossil fuel use in the coming decades to limit planetary heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) outlined in the Paris Agreement. A major report from the International Energy Agency released earlier this year found the world needs to stop all new fossil fuel expansion next year to have a hope of meeting this goal. In other words, the world needs a whole lot more Whatcom Counties Petalumas, and Greenlands, fast.

“We hope this win inspires other counties and cities,” said Krogh. “All across the U.S. and beyond, so many of us are struggling to see what we can do about climate and fossil fuels at home. Local action to stop fossil fuel expansion — whether land use, buildings, or transportation — is an important tool we can all sink our teeth into.”