The city of Vancouver has placed a six-month freeze on all new large-scale fossil fuel infrastructure, including a moratorium on expansions to existing facilities.
The decision comes from a desire “to promote safety and livability of our city, and focus economic development on safe and renewable energy sources and green businesses,” said Councilor Laurie Lebowsky, who introduced the moratorium at the council’s meeting Monday evening.
“There is also the social equity component,” she added, “in that fossil fuel processing or storage facilities are often located in close proximity to low-income communities or communities of color.”
The measure was passed by an unanimous vote.
However, some councilors were taken aback by the last-minute decision to discuss and vote on the moratorium — the item wasn’t on the meeting’s agenda, and according to Councilor Bart Hansen, was presented to the city council just a few minutes beforehand.
“I don’t vote ‘yes’ to something I haven’t had a chance to read, and I haven’t had a chance to read this,” said Hansen, who did end up voting in favor of the ordinance. “Did this issue just magically show up on everybody’s desk 15 minutes before the workshop?”
According to Councilor Ty Stober, the moratorium on new fossil fuel infrastructure has been in the works for a few months, but the council couldn’t take up the conversation because restrictions under a COVID-19 emergency order limited what the governing body could discuss. The emergency order expired on June 1.
Surprise moratoriums are legal, City Attorney Jonathan Young said, so long as the city holds a public hearing within 60 days of their implementation. Public notice of moratoriums ahead of time could result in a rush of permit applications as developers try to get their project in under the wire, which would defeat the purpose of a freeze.
“Obviously with something like this, if it’s going to be effective, it needs to have some degree of discretion to it,” Stober said.
The document reviewed and approved by the city council asserts that freezing fossil fuel expansion in Vancouver benefits public health and slows climate change.
Many of the city’s critical resources — such as energy facilities and water and sanitation systems — are located in areas susceptible to damage should a major earthquake strike the Pacific Northwest, the ordinance states.
“Facilities that store or process hazardous materials have been recognized to present an increased risk of spills or leaks … and a greater concentration of such facilities renders the city’s water supply at an increased susceptibility to contamination, particularly in the event of a powerful earthquake,” the ordinance states.
The document also highlights the public health risks even without a natural disaster, pointing to “air pollution resulting in impaired respiratory functions from fine particulates, noise pollution affecting hearing loss and psychological health, and exposure to heavy metals and contaminated drinking sources resulting in cancers, premature death and lung and heart diseases.”
The ordinance defines fossil fuels as petroleum, petroleum products and natural gases, including propane, butane and methane. Byproducts including asphalt, fertilizers, plastics, paints and denatured ethanol are expressly exempt.
It also defines a “large-scale” facility as any facility engaged in wholesale distribution, extraction, refinement or processing of fossil fuels; any terminal engaged in bulk shipping of fossil fuels; any structures built for bulk coal storage; any coal burning plants; any natural gas processing, storage or handling facility; and any bulk storage facility of more than 2 million gallons of any type or combination of fossil fuels.
Direct-to-consumer fossil fuel facilities, like gas stations, are free from the moratorium.
Repairing and maintaining existing fossil fuel facilities are also allowed, although any expansions are subject to the development freeze.
Open for review
The city is required to hold a public hearing within 60 days of enacting the moratorium on fossil fuel development.
Following public testimony, the council will then take another vote as to whether they want to keep the freeze in place for the full six months, or lift it immediately.
“An additional vote would be required to keep it in place,” Young said.
The forum has yet to be scheduled.
Stober pointed out that there’s precedent for the public rejecting fossil fuel infrastructure, citing the outcry that ultimately defeated a proposed rail-to-marine terminal at the Port of Vancouver in 2018.
“Our community, as we well know, several years ago stood up pretty strongly against crude oil in our city,” Stober said. “We’ve been hearing consistently from citizens over the past several years that they’re ready for Vancouver to go further.”