As election results continue to filter in, most eyes focus on the big-ticket races—city council members, state ballot measures, and levies. Yet way down near the bottom of the ballot is one of the most important votes that we cast in the Northwest: the races for port commissioner. Historically overlooked by voters and pundits alike, the Northwest’s recent controversies over coal and oil have begun to shift some attention to the leadership of public ports. It’s an entirely appropriate shift, because the elected leaders of the region’s ports play a more important role—for good or for ill—in determining the fate of the thin green line than almost anybody else.
In the wake of the Shell Arctic drilling rig protests in Seattle—sparked by the public port surreptitiously inviting the company to dock in the city—Sightline and others have begun to dig into the financial backing for port commissioners. It’s an endeavor that can shed light on the small political bodies that have been the first-movers on coal export facilities, oil train terminals, propane shipment sites, and petrochemical refineries.
Given the stakes, it’s surprising to learn that port leadership positions are barely funded and hardly contested. But Seattle is a notable exception to this rule. In this analysis, we look at political spending and election results in three key port commissioner races—Longview, Grays Harbor, and Vancouver—where port leadership will make vital decisions about coal and oil projects.
Port of Vancouver
On the Columbia River, the Port of Vancouver, Washington, is at the center of a dramatic expansion of the oil-by-rail industry. The Port has already approved a lease for Texas oil giant Tesoro to build a massive new oil train terminal on Port property. If built, Tesoro’s Vancouver Energy project would be the largest oil-to-marine transport facility anywhere in North America, capable of handling 360,000 barrels of crude per day.
Port commissioners have faced blistering criticism over their handling of the terminal’s public approval process. Residents, activists and the local newspaper have accused the port of breaking public meeting laws, holding closed-door backroom deals with Tesoro, and ignoring blatant health and safety risks. A legal action filed by local oil train opposition groups has been resolved (the Port was cleared of violating state environmental policy laws but paid $45,000 over public records violations), yet it has not silenced the Port’s critics. After months of newspaper stories like “Culture of Secrecy Shrouds Port of Vancouver”, residents packed the typically sleepy port public hearings, which often featured heated exchanges.
Tesoro’s Vancouver project would be the largest oil-to-marine transport facility anywhere in North America.
The environmental review process for Tesoro’s project is underway, with a draft assessment expected in November. Meanwhile, Nustar Energy, an existing Port tenant, is seeking permits to ship and store an additional 22,000 barrels of crude oil per day delivered by rail.
The Port of Vancouver is run by three elected commissioners, each serving a six-year term. In the past, it has been common for incumbent candidates to run unopposed and spend little money. In fact, in our review of past Vancouver Port races, we found only one candidate who raised more than $17,000—until this year.
In his first race in 2007, Commissioner Jerry Oliver raised $9,342 against opponent Arch Miller, who raised $38,195. Oliver didn’t raise any money in 2013 when he ran unopposed. His current term expires in 2019.
Commissioner Brian Wolfe raised $16,945 in 2005 when he ran against a candidate who didn’t raise any money. He raised $4,128 in 2011 when he ran unopposed. Wolfe will be up for election again in 2017.
The immediate story at the Port of Vancouver, however, centers on Nancy Baker, who in 2003 became the first woman elected to the commission in its 100-year history. After a tumultuous year and much controversy over the Port’s handling of the Tesoro-Savage oil terminal lease and the public disclosure process, she decided not to seek reelection. The primary drew eight candidates to contest Baker’s vacant seat, with the top fundraiser, Lisa Ross, raising $26,708 early on.
In the general election, Ross faced off against Eric LaBrant. The two candidates could hardly have been a starker study in contrasts—on the issue of oil projects and practically everything else.
Although LaBrant raised nearly $135,000, an unheard of sum for a Vancouver port position, his donations came in relatively small increments, with only a single donor giving more than $1,000. The vast majority of his support, in excess of $100,000, came as “in-kind” donations.
Ross garnered far less funding, just under $57,800, but it was much more concentrated from large donors. Also, corporations with a direct financial stake in oil terminals gave money to Ross: Tesoro contributed $8,500, Savage Services put in $2,500, and BNSF Railway chipped in $500. The Nustar PAC added $1,500.
Campaigning heavily on his opposition to the oil project, Eric LaBrant won with 57% of the vote (as of the last ballot count on Wednesday, November 4).
Port of Grays Harbor
Often overlooked, the Port of Grays Harbor has in recent years played a major part in the debate over Northwest fossil fuel exports. A coal export proposal there went bust in 2012, and the Port is now playing host to three oil-by-rail terminal proposals: US Development, an expansion at the Westway Terminal, and a storage and shipping proposal at Imperium Renewables (which Renewable Energy Group recently acquired) that together would be capable of shipping 167,500 barrels of crude per day.
Grays Harbor is playing host to 3 oil terminal proposals that would be capable of shipping 167,500 barrels/day.
All three of the projects have fallen drastically behind on their timelines for development and are facing stiff local opposition. The nearby town of Aberdeen’s city council voted unanimously to reject the projects. The local Quinault Indian Nation has hired legal representation to block them. And a coordinated campaign of statewide public interest groups is opposing them, too.
Like Vancouver, the Port of Grays Harbor is run by three elected commissioners, each serving a six-year term.
Commissioner Jack Thompson has served on the Port since 1994. He’s run unopposed twice, most recently in 2011, when he raised no money.
Serving on the Port since 2002, Commissioner Chuck Caldwell ran for reelection in 2007 unopposed, and the campaign finance reports he filed indicate that he didn’t raise any money. In his 2013 election, however, he raised $20,947, a bankroll that included contributions from two of the Port’s oil terminal backers: Westway kicked in $1,000, and Imperium Renewables contributed $575. He won in a landslide victory over Ron Figlar, who raised $7,851. Caldwell will run again in 2019.
Commissioner Stan Pinnick was first elected in 2003, and he faced a tough fight this year in his second reelection campaign. Pinnick, a supporter of oil development squared off against Ocean Shores councilwomen Jackie Farra, who led efforts for her town’s anti-oil train resolution.
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With the race called and results all but finalized, it appears Stan Pinnick has been reelected by about 1,300 votes. In contrast to the cash infused into the Vancouver port election, Pinnick raised just $8,325, and Farra has not yet reported any campaign funding.
Port of Longview
The Port of Longview has seen a suite of coal and oil projects recently. The biggest and most controversial of these proposals is surely the Millennium Bulk Terminal proposal that would export 44 million tons of coal per year. More recently, the Port considered (and then rejected) a propane-by-rail proposal backed by Haven Energy. The Port is now in the early stages of reviewing a proposal to build an oil refinery that would be paired with a propane-by-rail facility next door.
Making decisions about these projects are Longview’s three commissioners serving six-year terms.
When Commissioner Bob Bagaason ran against three other candidates in 2007, he raised $8,992 and won handily. In 2013, he won reelection unopposed and with no contributions. He will be up for reelection in 2019.
Commissioner Lou Johnson has been on the commission since 2011 when he raised $11,675 to defeat an unfunded opponent. He stepped down in May 2015, and the commission selected recently retired director of Longview terminal operations Doug Averett to replace him. Averett will finish out Johnson’s term, which runs until 2017, at which point he will have to run again to continue serving.
Commissioner Darold Dietz last ran in 2009. He was unopposed and didn’t raise any money. Dietz did not seek reelection this year. Vying to replace him were Jeff Wilson and Tony Filippello. Filippello says he supports the proposed oil refinery, while Wilson has said he needs more information before taking a stand.
So far, the results show Jeff Wilson winning handily with 66 percent of the vote. While not strongly in opposition, he did present a much more nuanced position on oil infrastructure than his opponent. Neither Wilson nor Filippello has reported any campaign funding.
The Port of Seattle and elsewhere in the Northwest
The paltry sums invested in Port races in potential coal and oil depots like Grays Harbor and Longview stand in stark contrast to the Port of Seattle. Commissioners in the state’s largest port very rarely run unopposed, and they can raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for their campaigns.
The early rounds of results in Seattle show incumbent Commissioner Courtney Gregoire winning reelection in a landslide against an obscure challenger. Despite the absence of serious opposition, she still raised over $96,000.
Running for an empty seat vacated by outgoing Commissioner Bill Bryant, environmental advocate Fred Felleman, who was an outspoken critic of the Port’s decision to host Shell’s Arctic drilling fleet this summer, defeated Marino Yoshino. Felleman raised $86,000 to Yoshino’s $29,000.
Yet Seattle is an outlier. Other Washington ports like Tacoma, Bremerton, and Bellingham generally see candidates who raise funds in the tens of thousands of dollars. And as our roundup of 2015 port races shows, voters tend to award most public port commission seats with very little study of the candidates. Vancouver’s port election was a hotly contested race for the first time in recent memory, but the races in Longview and Grays Harbor—two major sites for coal and oil—received virtually no funding or statewide attention. Not surprisingly, the candidates who won in these places were either neutral or supportive of fossil fuel development.
The low level of interest and funding in these small ports should concern those who are worried about massive dirty energy developments in the Northwest. Port commissioner seats are an elected office we can no longer afford to ignore.