Whatcom County sits at the northwest tip of the continental United States, a pine-fringed strip of 2,100 square miles in Washington state near where Canada meets the Pacific Ocean. Whatcom’s biggest claim to fame until now was as the nation’s top raspberry producer. But this year, a local election—the race for four seats on the Whatcom County Council—is shaping up to have a profound national, even global, impact. The outcome could affect the U.S. coal industry, trade relations with China, and the planet’s changing climate.
Already, the county race is on the radar of the coal industry, which campaigned against President Obama in 2012 on the charge that he’s waged a “war on coal,” and of national advocacy groups such as the League of Conservation Voters, which spent $14 million nationally to influence the 2012 elections.
“This is a smallish, local election, but the decisions this council will make over the next year or two will have sweeping implications for climate and energy around the world,” says Brendon Cechovik, executive director of the Washington state League of Conservation Voters, which is campaigning in support of four council candidates, and against two.
Just north of the Whatcom County city of Bellingham is the site of a proposed $600 million port, the Gateway Pacific Terminal, which, if constructed, would ship 48 million tons of coal annually from Wyoming and Montana to Asia—enough to power 15 to 20 new coal-fired power plants a year. Its fate will be decided at a moment when the coal industry is facing a reckoning. Fears about climate change are on the rise. Earlier this month, scientists sounded the alarm as atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide reached 400 parts per million, the highest level recorded in human history. The greenhouse gases produced by coal-powered electricity are the world’s worst contributor to global warming.
In the United States, coal use is declining as electric utilities shift to cheaper, less-polluting natural gas—acting in part on the expectation that Obama will further regulate coal plants. Coal companies see a lifeline in new foreign markets, particularly China, where coal is fueling rapid economic growth. That has led to proposals to build a series of coal-export terminals on the West Coast, of which Gateway would be the largest. But environmental groups see such projects as a climate disaster in the making. Even while they’re celebrating declining U.S. coal pollution, they fear that coal-export terminals will simply ship the problem somewhere else.
But, ultimately, it’s not up to the coal industry, green groups, or SSA Marine, the Seattle company that hopes to build the terminal, to decide what happens. That’s where the Whatcom County Council comes in. Over the next two years, the seven-member board will play an outsized role in Gateway’s fate, voting on two crucial siting permits which, if approved, will pave the way for the terminal’s construction. If the council rejects the permits, it could freeze the project for years, if not permanently. This November, voters will determine the makeup of the council that will make those crucial permit decisions, electing four of the seven members.
But here’s the kind of Twin Peaks twist you find only in local politics: The council is designated as a “semi-judicial” body, a sort of mini-court. That means candidates can’t disclose whether they would vote for or against the terminal, leaving voters in the dark about whom to support.
“This issue is on everyone’s lips, and passions … are running high,” says Michael Lilliquist, a city council member in Bellingham. “But even the candidates who have a clear opinion about it can’t say what they think.” Lilliquist, who vehemently opposes the terminal, says the way for voters like him to figure out how candidates stand will be by listening to buzzwords—and their own gut. “We have to listen to how they convey their value system, their political and philosophical touchstones. You have to kind of decode it. Do they talk about prosperity … and jobs? Do they talk about sustainability and climate change?... You have to intuit.”
Candidate Michelle Luke, who currently chairs the county’s planning commission, seemed to offer hints of her views to National Journal. “The environmental groups are powerful; they’ve got attorneys, and they’ve changed local participation on the issues,” she says. Of the impact of the terminal, she says, “Everybody here wants to protect what we have, but we also have to maintain our economy.”
Luke and other candidates will be targeted by Craig Cole, a consultant hired by SSA Marine. Cole, a former Whatcom County Council member, has been tasked by SSA with creating a local advocacy campaign in support of the project—although the company’s campaign won’t endorse candidates. Cole leads a group of volunteers—“Team Whatcom”—who go door-to-door, hand out fliers, show up at council meetings, and blanket Whatcom with signs reading “GPT: Get What-com Working.”
Also on the ground is the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, an umbrella group representing major industries with a stake in the project, including the nation’s largest coal company, St. Louis-based Peabody Energy; and D.C.-based lobbying powerhouses including the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Mining Association. The alliance is represented by Edelman, the world’s largest public-relations firm. It won’t endorse candidates, says Lauri Hennessey, an Edelman vice president, but it has invested in local television, radio, and newspaper ads backing the terminal by touting the thousands of construction jobs it will create.
The industry needs Whatcom County voters: If the council rejects the Gateway permits, the company will have a tough time finding another West Coast site. Already this year, environmental protests have delayed and frozen plans to build much smaller coal-export terminals nearby. Export advocates know they have their work cut out for them. “It’s a lightning-rod issue,” Hennessey says. “No one has lukewarm feelings about this.”
CORRECTIONS: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal is in Bellingham; it is just north of the city. Also, the name of Brendon Cechovik was misspelled.