Commentary: Cherry Point regulations could harm local economy

Whatcom County is considering a plan that could limit existing industries that employ hundreds.

By Todd F. Taylor / For The Herald

Moving quickly is a virtue in many undertakings. But if there’s one place where faster isn’t better, it’s public policy.

Unfortunately, the Whatcom County Council appears more focused on speed than soundness in its consideration of possible changes to the Cherry Point Comprehensive Plan. And that, for anyone focused on the economic well-being of Whatcom, Skagit and Snohomish counties, is cause for concern. As executive secretary of the Northwest Washington Building and Construction Trades, I represent over 5,000 men and women of the building trades, many of whom rely on Cherry Point industries to provide the family-wage jobs they need to support their households.

At issue are the approval requirements governing the traditional and renewable energy facilities at Cherry Point, especially the refineries. Environmental activists have long sought to stonewall progress at Cherry Point by almost any means necessary, and the latest salvo in their attack on growth and competitiveness comes in the form of incredibly restrictive new guidelines that will subject new projects to near endless layers of environmental review.

The proposed revisions depart from standard permitting practices by requiring businesses to operate under time-consuming and development-slowing “conditional use” permits for virtually any instance of an energy facility investing to improve or expand its Whatcom-based facilities. In theory, the changes are supposed to be limited in scope. But they will fundamentally change the way Cherry Point facility expansion and improvement is handled, rendering essentially all projects vulnerable to lengthy delays and last-minute rejection.

Making matters worse, the language and requirements of these revisions are abstract, non­specific, and open to endless interpretation. Discretionary or conditional permits require a judicial decision based on undefined criteria, which means the review processes will be unpredictable and unreliable in terms of timing, quality of review and result. For example, greenhouse gas analysis, required of all projects under the new code, will be allowed to drag on for unknown periods of time. The instability and subjectivity of the process, along with the drawn-out planning and approval processes could quickly render initial investment moot and scare off future investment in Whatcom County.

Businesses depend on predictability, and businesses seeking to grow or expand avoid unnecessary uncertainty. Given the choice between a location with a local government that understands that and one where the local government doesn’t, companies won’t have to deliberate for long before deciding to take their opportunity elsewhere.

The impacts of the proposed changes to the county code won’t be limited to refineries, export facilities or other businesses critical to the county. The investment environment and business landscape created by these code changes will repel employers of all sorts that may otherwise be interested in bringing business growth and opportunities to Whatcom County.

This is not the message Whatcom County should send to the business community, or to the thousands of families who rely on Cherry Point — and the companies based there — for their livelihood.

The county, in its focus on moving quickly, is glossing over very real issues inherent to these proposed changes. And in doing so, they’re not just putting the economy at risk. They’re also ignoring the fact that their plan will fail to help the environment.

The refineries at Cherry Point produce fuels which consumers and businesses across our region alike rely upon. These refineries are governed by some of the strictest, most thorough environmental standards in the world. Federal, state and local authorities have authority over the facilities’ operations, ensuring that the fuels they produce and the processes by which they produce them carry minimal environmental risk.

If Whatcom County enacts these changes, they will make it much more difficult for the refineries to continue to invest in environmental upgrades. What’s more, as these onerous new frameworks add to the refineries’ overhead and make it more difficult for them to maintain their productivity, local production may be reduced. When that happens, the gap in available supply will be filled with — you guessed it — dirty fuels produced outside of the United States in jurisdictions that don’t share our commitment to sustainability.

Policy changes this significant shouldn’t be rushed across the finish line. They should be examined carefully with public input and a full understanding of their impact.

Here’s hoping Whatcom County recognizes this and exercises restraint and respect for the full range of concerns from the community as they consider these changes.

Todd F. Taylor is the executive secretary for the Northwest Washington Building and Construction Trades Council.

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