Bellingham, Wash., coastline
Bellingham in Whatcom County, Wash., could soon be seeing a whole lot of coal.
Matt Ray

The adage “think global, act local” rings remarkably true in Whatcom County, Wash., a rural area in the northwestern corner of the country.

The seven county council members there will play a big role in deciding how much coal gets dug up in Great Plains states, shipped out of America, and burned by developing countries.

Over the next two years, the council will decide whether to issue two permits needed for the planned $600 million Gateway Pacific Terminal, which would export massive amounts of coal from Wyoming and Montana to Asia. In doing so, these council members will help determine the very future of the world’s climate.

So it’s a big deal that Whatcom County voters will be electing four council members this November.

From National Journal:

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. …

[U]ltimately, 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.

But Whatcom County voters won’t necessarily know where candidates stand on the issue because candidates aren’t allowed to say so.

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. …

Michael Lilliquist, a city council member in Bellingham … 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.”

Proposed coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest are a hotly controversial issue. Plans for some terminals have recently been dropped. We’ll be watching to see if the same thing happens to the Gateway Pacific Terminal.