The Lummi Nation has fished the waters of the Salish Sea, adjacent to Whatcom County, for thousands of years.
The Lummi Nation has fished the waters of the Salish Sea, adjacent to Whatcom County, for thousands of years. Matika Wilbur

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To hear Whatcom County Council Member Carl Weimer tell it, his county of 200,000 people just south of the Canadian border has become "ground zero" for fossil fuel exports.

He rattles off the list of recent issues: Cherry Point, which could have become the largest coal export facility in the United States; a new pipeline proposal for a liquid natural gas facility on Vancouver Island; the expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline to the north, which could transport twice the capacity of the Keystone pipeline; two refineries with rail yards transporting crude; and foreign investors interested building propane facilities.

Now that Congress has lifted its 40 year ban on crude oil exports, Whatcom County residents are anticipating even more fossil fuel shipments moving through their backyards. Which is why, last night, Whatcom County's seven-person council took the unusual and surprising step of banning all unrefined fossil fuel export permits for 60 days.

It was an unexpected move. The council was in the midst of deliberating over its 20-year comprehensive plan, and they wanted to address the issue of fossil fuel exports. Fearing that new permits issued during those 20-year-plan deliberations could effectively lasso legislators to following through on them, a majority of the council rallied behind Weimer and decided to ban all new permitting for two months.

Whatcom County environmentalists are, predictably, ecstatic.

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“Thousands of people in Whatcom County— from concerned parents to firefighters, doctors, and fishermen—demanded action against the special interests of Dirty Coal and Big Oil," Crina Hoyer, executive director of RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, said in a statement. "Today, our County Council answered that call. Our actions are working, and our representatives are responding. We must keep the momentum going and ensure that every community facing unrefined coal, crude oil and liquefied natural gas export proposals can do what Whatcom County did today.”

But not everyone is as thrilled. Brad Owens, president of the Northwest Jobs Alliance, told the Bellingham Herald that the council should have waited to hear from the Planning Commission about fossil fuel exports.

It's still an open question whether the Whatcom County Council's decision will hold up in court. In the meantime, Weimer says that the Council's next step is to hold a public hearing—and perhaps expand the moratorium for four more months, until the Planning Commission issues its decision on the 20-year plan.