For nearly a decade, the Northwest has been under siege from the fossil fuel industry. Along the sliver of coast from Coos Bay, Oregon to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, energy companies have proposed building coal export terminals, oil-by-rail transfer depots, petrochemical refineries, gas export sites, and more in dozens of locations. As a matter of fact, the recent proposals for Cascadia’s coast are some of the biggest projects of their kind anywhere on earth. Not only that, there are so many that their combined carbon throughput outstrips that of the giant Keystone XL Pipeline by an estimated factor of five, and likely much more.
The region’s opposition movement—the Thin Green Line—has fought these projects over and over again, and defeated even the best-capitalized and politically-connected projects. But it has fundamentally been reactive. Advocacy groups and indigenous communities have run an impressive shutdown defense against dirty energy projects, and continue to do so against the threat of new proposals.
That’s changing now.
It’s changing because across the Northwest, local governments in the very places most targeted by the fossil fuel industry are fighting back. Using the power of local land use law, they are charting a different course, one that reflects the wishes of their communities rather than the profits of big energy companies. These cities and counties demonstrate to local governments across North America how local ordinances can secure a better future—one free of the economic whiplash, environmental degradation, and the health threats that are endemic to the fossil fuel industry.
Here’s a summary look at the leading Cascadian communities charting a new course.
Since late 2016, Portland boasts the most assertive anti-fossil fuel land use regime in North America. The city’s initiative was, fittingly, born of a fight over a proposed propane export terminal. Just as the project looked certain to win approval, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales, formerly a backer of the project, reversed course in response to scrappy but determined opposition from local activists. He refused to put the proposal on the City Council agenda, effectively killing the project in June 2015. Hales then became a champion of a new movement to deploy the city’s land use law to effectively ban new and expanded fossil fuel developments in the Rose City.
A year-and-a-half later, the result was a comprehensive new ordinance passed unanimously into law by city council on December 14, 2016. It prohibits new “bulk fossil fuel terminals,” defined as terminals with marine, rail, or pipeline transport access, as well as “trans-loading” facilities (such as train-to-ship operation) or facilities with storage exceeding two million gallons of fuel. The law takes aim at the whole range of fossil fuels: petroleum products (crude and refined), coal, and gaseous fuels (such as natural gas, methanol, and propane), reining in expansions at ten existing petroleum terminals and one LNG plant while exempting ethanol and biodiesel.
Industry interests challenged the new law, however, and the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals initially ruled it unconstitutional on the grounds that it restricted interstate commerce. Not so, said the Oregon Court of Appeals, in a January 2018 ruling: Portland’s comprehensive rejection of dirty energy development does not violate the Commerce Clause—and it is perfectly compatible with the US Constitution.
Portland is the clear leader in opposing coal and petroleum development in Cascadia, but it’s hardly alone.
Often identified by its legacy of heavy industry and the target of a number of recent energy proposals, Tacoma is surely among the most at-risk Northwest communities for fossil fuel infrastructure development. A proposal to construct an extremely large methanol production facility failed in April 2016 in the face of overwhelming public opposition, but the city is still wrestling with a controversial liquefied natural gas plant and a proposal to modify an existing terminal to handle “natural gasoline” delivered by rail.
For the past several years, Tacoma’s old-guard leadership has been challenged by ongoing objections to dirty energy, from the local Puyallup Tribe, large swaths of the general public, and local advocacy groups. In November 2017 the city council voted unanimously to adopt a one-year interim moratorium on permitting any new fossil fuel developments in the industrial port area known as the Tideflats. Although the moratorium does allow expansions at existing facilities, the city has initiated a “subarea plan,” a thorough rewrite of the land use laws that govern developments in the Tideflats. Significantly, the planning process will include the Port of Tacoma and Puyallup Tribe as equal partners with the city. This sets up a potential clash between the Port, which has historically boosted fossil fuel projects, and the Tribe, which is adamantly opposed to further developments in their historic homeland.
Whatcom County, Washington
Cherry Point’s shoreline, known as Xwe’chi’eXen to the Lummi Nation, was a village site for at least 3,000 years, and is now a designated aquatic reserve owing to its unique ecosystem. It is also a site of intense energy industry development, home to two oil refineries, one of which is angling for expansion, and a major oil pipeline that may also soon expand. After the Obama Administration lifted the ban on exporting US crude oil and Lummi treaty rights were upheld after a bruising years-long fight over a proposal to build a large coal export facility there, many advocates in the region began advocating for a more comprehensive and proactive approach to fossil fuel development.
In August 2016, the Whatcom County Council adopted an emergency moratorium, Ordinance 2016-039, which prevented county agencies from accepting applications or issuing permits for new or expanded facilities in Cherry Point with the primary purpose of shipping out “unrefined fossil fuels.” The moratorium passed unanimously, and even its initial renewal earned just one dissenting vote—despite vociferous opposition from BP, three local Republican state legislators, and the Whatcom Business Alliance, a corporate-interest group that initially formed to promote the coal export project.
Subsequently extended multiple times for six months, the moratorium gave the Council time to amend the County’s 20-year Comprehensive Plan in May 2017, setting the table for Whatcom County to reproduce for the Cherry Point area something similar to what Portland accomplished: revising local land use codes to protect public health and safety by forbidding new developments for crude oil, coal, methane, propane, butane, and natural gas. At the behest of the County, Cascadia Law produced a remarkably thorough study of options for Whatcom County, including helpful analysis of what other jurisdictions have done. (It’s highly recommended reading for those interested in the prospects for using local land use law to obstruct dirty energy development.) Backers of the initiative hope to pass the land-use ordinances restricting dirty energy projects by September 2018.
In the meantime, smaller Northwest towns have also moved decisively against fossil fuels, although the reforms have generally been more narrowly defined.
In August 2015, the City Council of Hoquiam, Washington, approved amendments to the City Code that prohibit bulk oil storage. It was a surprising move, given that the local port had entertained no fewer than three viable oil-by-rail terminal proposals since 2012, projects that in aggregate could have handled more than 160,000 barrels of crude oil per day.
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The official process began on March 6, 2015, when Hoquiam Mayor Jack Durney sent two resolutions to City Council, including one to establish a moratorium on new oil facilities while the City revised its land use plan. The Mayor’s letter indicated that he had come to the conclusion that “wholesale liquefied petroleum storage and sales facilities are not compatible with our lifestyle, our safety, or our current and future economy.” He encouraged the Council to “change the future” of the city, which is located near three recent oil terminal proposals at Grays Harbor and was impacted by the Nestucca oil spill, one of the largest spills in Washington history.
The intent of the amendments was a comprehensive defense against crude oil development: to prohibit the licensing, regulation, location, and permitting of wholesale liquefied petroleum storage, handling, and sales facilities. In practice, this meant creating definitions for bulk crude oil storage and handling facilities and updating the city’s legal land-use table to reflect restrictions on this use. (Although planners initially drafted a prohibition on “sales,” the hearing examiner recommended removing that term, so the final recommendation limited the focus of the amendments to storage and handling.) The amendments do not prohibit the development of facilities that handle and store refined or finished products derived from petroleum, such as kerosene or gasoline.
About a year later, on July 13, 2016, Hoquiam’s next-door neighbor on Grays Harbor took the same step: Aberdeen’s City Council unanimously made permanent a moratorium on bulk crude oil storage and handling facilities. The city’s temporary moratorium had been passed a year earlier by a 9 to 2 vote. The new Ordinance (No. 6594) amended and added language to the Municipal Code prohibiting bulk crude oil storage and handling facilities in all zoning districts within the City of Aberdeen. The law applies neither to biofuels nor to finished products derived from petroleum.
A week after that, Vancouver, Washington, moved in the same direction as Aberdeen. Threatened by the planned development of North America’s largest oil-by-rail facility, Tesoro’s Vancouver Energy project, the city council on July 18, 2016, approved an ordinance to amend the Municipal Code to define and then prohibit new crude oil storage and handling facilities and to limit the expansion of existing facilities that average fewer than 50,000 barrels a day. The ordinance also prohibited new oil refineries.
An emergency moratorium had already been in effect in Vancouver since September 2014, a measure passed in response to a firestorm of public opposition to Tesoro’s proposal. In their July 2016 debate, councilmembers disagreed over global warming in their debate but unanimously approved the measure, reasoning that it would protect the safety of residents.
Shortly after the June 3, 2016, oil train derailment in Mosier, Oregon, the Spokane City Council voted unanimously to place a measure on the November 2016 ballot asking voters to prohibit rail shipment of crude oil or coal through the city, and to impose a fine of up to $261 per tank car for such shipments. Voters never got the chance to weigh in on the measure, though. Before the end of June, the Council voted 5-2 to withdraw it, acknowledging that the measure would almost certainly not survive a legal challenge.
Spokane made a second attempt in October 2016 when councilmember Breean Beggs filed a new citizen’s initiative to the people for the November 2017 ballot, this one targeting the owners of rail cars and not the rail companies directly, as in the original proposal. Beggs’ initiative would amend the municipal code to prohibit the shipment of oil and uncovered coal in specified zones of Spokane, including downtown, near the Spokane River, and near schools and hospitals—all areas near the busy rail lines that run through the heart of the city. City staff and other observers remain concerned that the proposed measure would be preempted by federal law. Spokane‘s hearing examiner has even criticized it on legal grounds, but it went before voters in November 2017.
The fossil fuel industry outspent the measure’s supporters by a hundred-to-one. Supporters of the measure raised a meager $7,000 pitted against coal and railway company contributions totaling $750,000. The measure lost 42 to 58 percent.
Ten years on since the first big coal and oil shipment projects came to the Northwest, the clash is far from over. Although coal exports are largely a dead letter, the region is still plagued by big oil and gas projects that would transform the region into a superhighway for fossil fuels. Every one of these contests could have profound consequences for the region’s future.
Yet the true measure of the Thin Green Line will be more than just successful resistance to fossil fuel projects.
It is not simply sparing Cascadia the environmental insults heaped on regions like the Gulf Coast, but also building a permanent barricade against the industry’s depredations. Fortunately, Cascadia’s cities and counties have in their power everything they need to lock out dirty energy from its communities and coastlines. The Northwest’s local governments can make this a place where communities write their clean energy future into law.
Tarika Powell provided research and review of this article, and she co-authored the January 2017 version of it along with Deric Gruen. Thanks also to Eddy Ury, Andrew Strobel, Kristen Boyles, Dan Serres, and Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky for supporting research and review. This article benefited from a February 2018 report prepared by Cascadia Law Group for Whatcom County.