Member Ed,

Fighting the long fight: After 10 years, Whatcom County won against fossil fuels 

By: Kamna Shastri

Last Summer, Whatcom County became the first refining community in the country to pass a ban on all new fossil fuel facilities and establish strong limits and review requirements on any proposed expansions of those that already exist. This success reflects the more than ten years that went into building power in Whatcom County including mobilizing around policy and shared concerns and electing leaders who would act as champions for this type of hallmark legislation. 

The movement to ban fossil fuels in Whatcom County began with leadership from the Lummi Nation. When the largest terminal on the West Coast was proposed at Cherry Point in Whatcom County, Lummi Nation leaders asserted their tribal treaty rights and pushed back. The following fight was not only a risk but also dangerous and long and tested the integrity of federal law.  What was at stake was the treaty rights, health and safety of the Lummi Nation’s members. Losing would normalize a dangerous precedent of disregarding the communities who have been on this land since time immemorial. 

Washington Conservation Voters, our partner organization Washington Environmental Council, local organizations and activists joined the Lummi Nation to help build power  2013 through community organizing, legal action, and for WCV, elections. Together, these players stayed involved in the community long after the coal terminal was stopped to continue to build relationships and power. Together, they collectively advocated to reject the proposed coal terminal and to put in place for land use codes and protections that would deprioritize fossil fuel interests and instead center the health of the community. 

Starting in 2013, we focused on impactful local elections and were able to help flip a conservative council into a majority pro-environmental council. Back then, WCV had political chapters and our Whatcom County chapter invested in the effort by bringing in state level and even national resources.  

After many election cycles worth of knocking on doors, talking to constituents, and media coverage of the stakes of each election, the citizens of Whatcom County elected three pro-environmental members to the Council, enough to turn the County against the coal terminal. 

In the following Q and A, WCV’s Lennon Bronsema, Vice President of Campaigns, reflects on this incredible win. 

How did you build momentum toward the fossil fuel ban in Whatcom County? 

After our success in 2013, another opportunity arose in 2017 when we were able to elect a new county executive and bolster the majority of our council members. When one of our champions, Satpal Singh Sidhu, who was already on the council ran for Whatcom County Executive we were ready.  We had a hard-fought win–resulting in the County Executive being willing to consider our issues, and the majority of the council was with us. 

Which then resulted, four years later, in the first in the nation land-use code which prevented this build-out of fossil fuel infrastructure. This will be the model for other communities up and down the west coast and hopefully in places like Louisiana which has a lot of fossil fuel exports as well. 

It has this ripple effect that is really important because the export (of coal, oil, and gas) itself is bad but when it actually gets to where it’s going and is burned, that’s the real bad thing. And we have stopped that.

“This little win in Whatcom county, can have a global impact and that is pretty incredible.” 

You consistently faced rhetoric that pit economic security against environmental protection. How did you combat the jobs vs. environment argument? 

The opposition  relied on tired, cliche talking points that galvanized their base so we worked really hard to talk to those people and really broaden who this impacts so we could get people to understand that this was better for the longevity of the county. If folks really treasure their rural way of life, well you can’t have climate catastrophe, you need to figure out a different way to have jobs. That’s how we did that. 

Thinking of what it took to get Satpal Sidhu elected, what does it take to actually get those issues and candidates the backing they need – what kinds of conversations did that take? 

We supported Satpal when he ran for the county council. We were one of the first orgs to endorse him when he decided to run for county executive and we didn’t just say, oh we support you, we actively campaigned  because we believed in him and his values. We put organizers on the ground and ran a massive get out the vote effort. Satpal faced racist attacks and we responded immediately and worked to get other impactful voices to respond.

The community was defending him. By the time voting began to elect Satpal it was a multi generational, multi faith coalition – it was huge. You have to give the candidate a lot of credit but it also comes from that long term work we do in these communities, not just parachuting in and leaving, that we were present and in community. 

What part did “people power” play in this process? 

Their {the county council’s} heart was in the right place but it took nine years. They may have given up if the community hadn’t shown up time and again to get there.

People, citizens, kept fighting, even when they didn’t have people elected to office. The [residents] of Whatcom were up against the largest most profitable corporations in the world. People power just never quit. They were at every meeting asking for the law to be followed. They were the wrenches in the cog of the machinery that slowed things down and made people ask, “is this the right thing for the community?” 

They made global corporations play by the rules and said you can’t do this here, which is incredible! And they didn’t do it with anything other than the power of public meetings,  voting, and elections.

Do you think there is a possibility for similar legislation to pass elsewhere? 

Absolutely! The hard questions have been answered. Any government now can take what Whatcom County did, put their name on it and it passes all those bureaucratic tests which condenses how much time someone has to invest in the change. 

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What happened in Whatcom County is inspiring. Still, land use protections that safeguard against fossil fuels take years to develop and implement. While WCV worked on building power through elections, our partners at WEC along with local community groups grew the momentum to establish the ban in the policy space. Moving forward, we have to hold elected officials accountable to these policies and their commitment to the health and safety of communities. This is why elections are an imperative accountability tool. 

We must also remember though that every community needs to craft their own tailored solutions to address the specific needs they face. Whatcom County is a hallmark example of what happens when communities rally together to support environmental champions who will make real the policies that will usher in transformative change. 

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Editorial Note: We present this piece from an intention of respect and appreciation for the collective work of the community members and partners who are at the heart of this story. This is just a short, brief snapshot of what happened in Whatcom County and is not meant to be a comprehensive explanation of the decades and hundred of hours of effort that went into this work. We hope this begins to help you recognize the impact of civic and electoral engagement in broader systemic change that impacts communities on the ground. 

TAGS: Elections, Fossil Fuels, Organizational