Nathan Taft is senior digital campaigner for Stand.Earth’s SAFE Cities initiative, a growing movement of neighbors, local groups, and elected officials working together to block the expansion of fossil fuels and promote a just transition to a clean energy economy. 

Cherry Point, tucked away in the northwest corner of Whatcom County, Washington, is a strip of shoreline on the Salish Sea known as Xwe’chi’eXen to the Lummi Nation. It is home to a beautiful state-protected aquatic reserve for herring, salmon, and endangered southern resident killer whales. 

It’s also the site of three heavy shipping piers, two of which serve nearby oil refineries. If the fossil fuel industry had its way, it also would have been home to the largest coal export terminal ever proposed in North America.

Instead, Whatcom County provided a blueprint for ending fossil fuel expansion. 

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On July 27, the Whatcom County Council became the first local government in the U.S. to amend its land-use law to prohibit new refineries, fossil fuel shipment facilities, coal plants, piers, and wharfs. It also requires a more rigorous environmental review and permitting processes for the expansion of current facilities. 

This victory sets a national precedent for communities to restrict fossil fuel development at a time when state and national policies are failing.

Whatcom’s battle began in 2011 when the massive multinational cargo operator SSA Marine revealed plans for the $500 million Gateway Pacific coal export terminal, an operation so large it would have shipped 48 million metric tons of coal per year. Members of the Lummi Nation and environmental advocates raised concerns about the impact on local ecology — including the Lummi Nation’s ancestral land, waters, and fishing grounds — as well as residents’ health, sparking protracted protests throughout the region.

Their efforts paid off. In 2016, the Army Corps of Engineers denied the Gateway Pacific Terminal proposal after determining that coal shipping would interfere with the Lummi Nation’s treaty-protected fishing rights.

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The problem was, that wasn’t the community’s only fight. Between 2011 and 2016, Whatcom County residents were also staring down two new pipeline proposals (one oil, one gas), another pipeline expansion, and two oil train terminals. The carbon pollution that would have been created by the oil, coal, and gas exports would have been 2.3 times all of Washington State’s emissions, plus it would have released extreme amounts of deadly environmental pollution. 

Then, Whatcom County decided to change the rules. 

Laws vary from state to state, but in large swaths of the U.S., local governments have the authority to decide what does (or doesn’t) get built within their jurisdiction — especially when the project under consideration could negatively impact the health of their residents. The SAFE Cities initiative of Stand.Earth, the organization I work with, assists local governments and communities in asserting that regulatory power to stop the expansion of fossil fuels and foster a just transition to a clean energy economy. Our work with Whatcom is what inspired the initiative.

Whatcom was unique in that it was the first refinery community to pass such policies, but it certainly is not alone when it comes to local municipalities leveraging their regulatory authority to stop the growth of the fossil fuel industry.

Despite hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of interference from the American Petroleum Institute, the small coastal community of South Portland, Maine, passed a zoning ordinance in 2014 that prohibits bulk loading of crude oil into marine tanker vessels on the city’s waterfront, citing the need to “protect the health and welfare of its residents and visitors.” 

Last month, South Portland finally prevailed in court against a multimillion dollar suit filed by the pipeline company after the Biden administration filed a precedent-setting amicus brief stating that the law “doesn’t violate the Constitution, federal laws or foreign policies.” 

In 2019, Berkeley, California, banned natural gas hookups in new buildings, a policy that inspired more than 50 cities to do the same. In 2020, Culver City, California, began phasing out oil fields within city limits. And just earlier this year, Petaluma, California, passed the nation’s first ban on new gas stations

To be clear, such policies may require deep legal resources and can be difficult to pull off in places with draconian preemption laws that curtail local authority to address climate change and reduce the use of fossil fuels. (I’m looking at you, Florida.) Over the past two years, 19 states have passed legislation to stop communities from enacting gas bans. Four others are considering it.  

And yet, it’s hard to keep local communities down.

In 2019, Brookline, Massachusetts overwhelmingly passed a ban on natural gas hookups in new buildings, only to have its law struck down by the state less than a year later when it claimed the ordinance superseded state authority. Undeterred, Brookline got creative and passed a series of provisions that essentially did the same thing — oil and gas in new construction isn’t “banned,” but anyone applying for construction permits must agree to eschew fossil fuels to receive approval. 

The fossil fuel industry has done an infuriatingly good job of blocking meaningful climate and environmental justice legislation at the national and state level. However, local communities can and are using local regulatory authority to protect themselves and the climate.

And the strategy isn’t limited to solidly blue enclaves. Whatcom County is a purple community, where agriculture and heavy industry have comprised significant parts of the economy for decades; its ordinance passed unanimously. There may be hard partisan splits when it comes to addressing climate change, but no one wants to live near facilities that cause cancer or cook with fuels that give their kids asthma

Fighting fossil fuels at the local level is also a strategic way to take on an industry that sometimes seems invincible. To stop local initiatives, fossil fuel companies have tried a host of tactics. They’ve hired PR firms to sow controversy via social networks like NextDoor. They’ve delayed votes by threatening to bus in hundreds of protesters with no social distancing in place. They’ve taken out bus ads and blanketed residents with unsolicited robotexts

But industry’s efforts have mostly been futile — they can’t fight a war on so many fronts. Western State Petroleum Association’s Catherine Reheis-Boyd called policies like Berkeley’s gas ban “death by 1,000 cuts.” To date, we’ve tracked 104 different SAFE policies passed in 81 communities around the globe. Taken together, these efforts are limiting the ability of the fossil fuel industry to expand and applying pressure on higher-level governments to act.

Ultimately, we will need ambitious action on a state, national, and even an international scale to combat the threat of fossil fuels and climate change. But while we continue to push for grand plans like the Green New Deal and the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, we can start working in our own communities to protect ourselves.

After all, everyone knows that true change comes from the ground up.

The views expressed here reflect those of the author. 

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