City of Bellingham steers away from tar sands oil

By Ryan Wynne

The Bellingham City Council passed two resolutions Monday intended to gently steer the city away from using tar sands oil. The resolutions were passed just weeks after council renewed a 10-year franchise agreement with Trans Mountain Pipeline, which transports some of the controversial oil in a pipeline running through Bellingham.

Tar sands oil is seen as controversial due to environmental effects that result from mining and processing it, and before council voted to approve the franchise agreement, community members spent three council meetings urging them not to renew.

So, on Monday, councilmen were met with applause when they unanimously approved a resolution promoting energy alternatives to fossil fuels, in particular high carbon fuels such as those derived from Canadian tar sands sources.

Council was met with less visible audience enthusiasm just minutes later when it unanimously passed a resolution that could affect the city’s next fleet vehicle fuel supply contract. That resolution would give preference to refiners that don’t use tar sands oil.

While the first fossil fuel resolution was passed with very little discussion, the second raised some concerns.

Councilmen Terry Bornemann said the measure seemed sudden considering the fleet fuel contract won’t be up for renewal until 2014. Bornemann said that would give them plenty of time to get feedback from city staff and that council should wait for that feedback.

“It’s not for another five years,” Bornemann said. “I don’t understand the rush.”

But Councilman Michael Lilliquist said the resolution only sets forth goals, not restrictions. It is a commitment to look in another direction, he said.

Councilman Barry Buchanan said he was concerned with potential costs to the city that could result from avoiding tar sands fuels.

Councilman Jack Weiss responded that economic costs shouldn’t be the only ones considered; environmental and social implications should also be weighed.

To allay concerns, Councilman Seth Fleetwood recommended adding the phrase “where such effort is reasonably feasible” to the resolution, which was enough to convince all seven councilmen to approve the resolution.

Next time the city considers fuel contracts for Bellingham fleet vehicles, “where such effort is reasonably feasible,” fuels with higher than normal greenhouse gas footprints will be avoided, those with higher than average environmental or social impacts will be avoided, fuels produced by refineries taking feedstock from Canada’s tar sands will be minimized, and preference will be given to fuels with lower than normal greenhouse gas footprints.

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