How One Washington County Took On the Fossil Fuel Industry—and Won
Whatcom County is the first in the US to ban new fossil fuel infrastructure
On June 10, 1999, the Olympic Pipeline ruptured and spilled more than 236,000 gallons of gasoline into a creek in the small city of Bellingham, Washington. Residents quickly reported suffocating smells coming from the creek, which had turned pink from the contamination. An hour and a half later, the gasoline that was floating downstream ignited, resulting in a massive explosion that killed three people, including two 10-year-old boys.
“That was a big wake-up call for our community—Bellingham and Whatcom County—about oil and gas,” Carl Weimer remembers.
Weimer went on to become a fierce advocate for pipeline safety, and in 2005 he was elected to the Whatcom County Council, where he served for 12 years. From that perch, he found himself at the center of a series of other fossil fuel battles. Whatcom County—located in the northwest corner of the United States and home to two of Washington State’s five oil refineries—has been bombarded with proposed oil, gas, and coal projects over the past decade and a half. Endowed with deep-water harbors and crossed by the main rail line going from the United States to British Columbia, the county is a natural hub for the movement of commodities.
This summer, county leaders finally decided they had enough of constantly batting away fossil fuel projects. In July, the Whatcom County Council unanimously voted to amend the county’s Comprehensive Plan and ban the construction of new oil refineries and other fossil fuel infrastructure in their jurisdiction. The ban made international headlines, as the vote made Whatcom County the first county in the United States to take such a step. In addition to banning new fossil-fuel-related projects, county leaders put in place limits on the expansion of existing facilities like the two oil refineries. Now, upgrades at existing facilities will require public notice, ending an industry practice of quietly sneaking substantial industrial proposals through the permitting process unbeknownst to nearby communities.
Carl Weimer said some of the seeds of the fossil fuel infrastructure ban were planted in the community efforts that sprung out of the pipeline explosion 22 years ago. “I think that pipeline tragedy kind of set this community up” for action, he told Sierra.
One of the most controversial fossil fuel proposals slated for Whatcom County was the Gateway Pacific coal export terminal. First proposed in 2011, the coal port would have been the largest in the country. That “galvanized the community to come together to try to defeat that because it was so wrong in so many different ways,” Weimer said.
In addition to the environmental and safety hazards to Whatcom County residents living along the rail route, the coal terminal posed a threat to the ancestral fishing waters of the Lummi Nation, a violation of the tribe’s treaty-guaranteed fishing rights. After years of legal wrangling, the Army Corps of Engineers ultimately agreed, killing off the project with a permit rejection in 2016.
Gateway Pacific was not the only coal terminal planned for the Pacific Northwest. As recently as a decade ago, a half dozen other coal-by-rail and export terminals were proposed for the region, as increasingly cash-strapped coal-mining companies looked to sell their product abroad. A similar dynamic was unfolding in oil markets, with oil companies scrambling to find ways to move oil to the Pacific for export to Asia.
That meant that Whatcom County, and specifically the industrialized area at Cherry Point on the Salish Sea, became a prime target for the fossil fuel industry.
The campaign against the Gateway Pacific project strengthened the efforts by community members, environmental groups, and Indigenous peoples to transition the county away from fossil fuels. More environmental champions began running for county council in order to challenge the industry.
In 2016, Carl Weimer and others on the county council wanted to find some legal tools they could use to put a stop to future fossil fuel development. But implementing legally defensible restrictions would take time, and Weimer feared that oil, gas, and coal companies might rush through a bunch of projects while the county crafted new restrictions.
“That's when it dawned on us that we needed to pass an emergency moratorium while we worked on these amendments to preclude them from getting something grandfathered in,” he said. In 2016, Whatcom County passed a six-month moratorium on new fossil fuel projects at Cherry Point. For the next five years, the county renewed the temporary moratorium every six months.
The moratoriums sparked backlash from the oil industry, mainly BP and Phillips 66, two large companies that each have a refinery at Cherry Point. They began angling to elect oil allies to Whatcom County leadership as a way to tip the scales in their direction.
The most glaring example came during the 2019 race for county executive, in which Phillips 66 poured tens of thousands of dollars into a political action committee (PAC) allied with the industry-friendly candidate, Tony Larson. At that time, Larson headed the Whatcom Business Alliance, an organization that counts the Cherry Point oil refiners among its members. The industry was essentially running one of its own in the county executive race.
Despite the industry-backed PAC’s heavy spending and smearing of the opposition, Larson lost to the progressive candidate. Larson’s defeat was the latest in a string of election losses for the oil industry—and the defeat helped clear the way for the county to finally make its fossil fuel moratorium permanent.
The oil industry “spent a lot of money on three election cycles, unsuccessfully. Then they came to the table. And that was really helpful,” Todd Donovan, a Whatcom County councilmember, told Sierra. “If that [the 2019 election] had gone the other way, industry wouldn't have come on board.”
In July, the county council approved the fossil fuel development ban in a 7–0 vote. Even the oil industry supported the outcome by signaling that it would not challenge the new restrictions in court. At the council hearing, Tom Wolf, BP’s senior government affairs manager for the West Coast, called the new restrictions a “sweet spot, that Goldilocks zone, where not everyone gets what they want but what they need.”
Piercing the industry’s “aura of invincibility” was critical, according to Matt Krogh, an oil and gas campaigner at Stand.earth, an environmental group. For too long, fossil fuel companies would come to Whatcom County and not seek input on their plans and instead would simply try to steamroll the community. Opposition felt futile, which only enhanced the industry’s position.
The new ban on fossil fuels “entirely flips the script on that and says, ‘We're inevitably done with fossil fuel expansion. We're going in a different direction,’” Krogh said. “To me, that is the most inspiring part of it all.”
Even with public opinion firmly on their side, the county council also wanted to make sure that its new ordinance could withstand legal attacks. The county funded an extensive legal study ahead of time to establish a solid foundation for what it could do, ensuring that whatever infrastructure ban it put into place wouldn’t be quickly overturned in court.
“We couldn't regulate oil trains because that's interstate commerce,” Weimer said, “but we could regulate what the industries could build on their sites to facilitate the oil trains, so we went in that direction.”
Carefully crafting the legal scope of the infrastructure ban proved critical. “Without the multiple electoral victories, without the legal study, I think negotiating with industry would be problematic,” Krogh said.
There is little evidence to suggest that the global oil and gas industry will go quietly into the night. In the absence of coordinated federal action to keep fossil fuels in the ground, localized bans on fossil fuel infrastructure may become an important tool for communities eager to accelerate the transition to a renewable energy economy.
“We didn't have any hope that the federal government was going to protect us. So, we had to try to do what we could locally,” Weimer said.
“I think often local governments underestimate how much power they have. This was certainly an experiment in that,” he said. “How far could we push it? How much could we use local zoning and planning issues to control industries that have a much broader impact? And we found we could do quite a bit.”