The Little County Council Election That Could Mean Big Things For Coal Exports

Oct 17, 2013

There’s a county council election taking place in the far Northwest corner of Washington state that could play a major role in the future of the U.S. coal industry.

Whatcom County could one day be the home of the largest coal export facility on the west coast – which would transfer coal from trains onto ships bound for Asia.

The Whatcom County council could cast the deciding votes in the permitting of the Gateway Pacific Terminal.   

That’s put this election in the spotlight.

If you drive around Whatcom County you’ll see a lot of yard signs. Some say “No Coal Trains” with a big red “X” through the letters. Others in support of the terminal say “Good Jobs Now: Stop the War on Workers”.

[Door opens and shuts]

Isabel VanDerslice grabs her clipboard and campaign flyers and walks up to a big house in a well-to-do neighborhood of Bellingham. There aren’t any signs in this front yard.

[Knocking on door]

Isabel VanDerslice: “Hi I’m Isabel VanDerslice with the Whatcom Conservation Voters. 15:50 We’re a campaign supporting the four county council candidates who are opposed to coal. Are you familiar with the coal port issue?” “yup”.

VanDerslice is volunteering with the local branch of the Washington Conservation Voters.

The Seattle-based environmental group has now pumped more than 160,000 dollars into the Whatcom County council race to support candidates it believes will oppose the Gateway Pacific Terminal.

The lion’s share of that money came from California billionaire and environmentalist, Tom Steyer.

Brendon Cechovic is the Executive Director of Washington Conservation Voters.

Brendon Cechovic: “We’re very committed to fighting and winning any time the issue of climate change is on the ballot so there’s a lot of eyes across the country and around the world watching what’s happening this fall in Whatcom County.”

There are four open seats on the 7-member council.

Cechovic’s group and others that oppose the coal terminal want to see their favored candidates take those seats. That way there could be enough no-votes to deny the permits necessary to build the dock for the Gateway Pacific Terminal.

But the funny thing is, county council candidates aren’t supposed to say specifically whether they’re for or against the terminal because they’ll eventually act as a sort of judicial body in reviewing the permit applications.

So there’s a lot of indirect messaging going on. Candidates make comments about “creating jobs” or “protecting the environment” – a sort of code for how they might vote in the final permitting of the terminal.

But everyone knows where the candidates stand on the issue.

And at this stage in the game, the four candidates who are believed to oppose the coal export terminal have raised more than three times what their opponents have raised.

Charlie Crabtree: “My name is Charlie Crabtree and I’m chair of the Whatcom County Republican party.”

From where Crabtree sits – at the 5 Columns Greek restaurant in Bellingham – things look pretty bleak.

Charlie Crabtree: “The other side has a lot more money.”

He says the coal terminal is everywhere in this election.

Charlie Crabtree: “It comes in as an undercurrent to almost anything we do in this campaign and what we’re concerned about as Republicans is that we want an opportunity through a valid process, of creating family wage jobs.”

The company that wants to build the coal terminal and the rail company that would service it, have given more than 40,000 dollars to the state Republican party, which then gave about 15,000 dollars to the Whatcom county GOP.

But that figure is dwarfed by the contributions of groups like Washington Conservation Voters.

Todd Donovan is a professor of political science at Western Washington University and has been following politics in Whatcom County for 20 years.

Todd Donovan: “It is unusual to have billionaire philanthropists and big multinational firms coming in and spending money. But to see these six figure dollar amounts being spent by groups that aren’t based here in Whatcom County, not even in Washington, that’s unusual.”

Donovan says in the past, county council candidates have spent closer to 20,000 dollars to get elected.

Todd Donovan: “Now you’re looking at $90,000 independent expenditures. Candidates raising $80-90,000. The coal issue is helping candidates on both sides raise money, particularly the environmentalists.”

But Donovan says the issue is also reflective of a bigger cultural difference between the liberal city of Bellingham and the more rural and conservative parts of the county.

Todd Donovan: “The coal thing takes that conflict that’s always been here and really crystalizes it. You know between the environmentalists and the people who want to do what they think they have the right to do with their land.”

Donovan says there are probably about as many anti-coal voters in Bellingham as there are pro-coal voters in the more rural parts of Whatcom county – and that could make for some really close races.

As it stands right now the county council is thought to be supportive of the coal terminal so the environmentalists would need their candidates to pick up two seats.

The council won’t be reviewing the permits for the Gateway Pacific Terminal dock until the state and federal agencies finish their environmental review of the project. That could take at least another two years.

Copyright N3 2013