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Oct. 6, 2022

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Fossil fuel facilities in focus in Vancouver

City eyes zoning changes to make ban permanent

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:

The city of Vancouver has been employing moratoriums to prevent development of new fossil fuel facilities in Vancouver. Now, city officials are carefully tailoring zoning code amendments to make the ban permanent and legally defensible.

Staff are attempting to finalize the proposed amendments before the most recent moratorium expires Nov. 8. The moratorium, first implemented in 2020 and last extended in June, prohibits new facilities that distribute, extract, refine or process fossil fuels.

Gas stations and facilities and services that produce energy from landfill gas and fossil fuel byproducts are not impacted by the ban. Repair and maintenance of existing facilities is also exempt from the moratorium.

Chad Eiken, city community and economic development director, told the Vancouver City Council that if the remaining procedural processes remain on track, the ordinance will take effect three days before the moratorium expires.

City officials are concerned fossil fuel facilities pose a risk to the area’s health and safety. In 2018, a proposed oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver was rejected after vehement public opposition.

Currently, there are six bulk facilities in Vancouver that are susceptible to liquefaction if an earthquake occurs, Eiken said. Hazardous materials could potentially flow into the Columbia River, wetlands and other wildlife habitats in the case of a seismic event. Proposed code changes are intended to reduce this risk and also minimize greenhouse gas emissions.

At Monday’s city council meeting, Mayor Pro Tem Ty Stober requested that the ordinance’s purpose statement discuss health impacts on low-income families caused by fossil fuel facilities.

“I continue to be concerned about the health effects of the Fruit Valley community,” he said. “It’s a low-income community, and we know that our low-income communities are the ones who historically in this country have faced the greatest health effects from many of our industrial uses.”

With the updates, there would be new land use categories for fuel storage and handling facilities, as well as modifications in other codes. The new classifications — outlined as bulk, cleaner and small fossil fuel — prohibit large new facilities in all zoning districts, said Bryan Snodgrass, the city’s principal planner. Small facilities with capacity of 60,000 gallons or less are permitted in industrial zones.

Existing bulk fossil fuel facilities are allowed to receive maintenance and upgrades, including the expansion of facilities to support a conversion to cleaner fuels — gas produced from renewable sources with low emissions. Converted clean facilities can expand by up to 15 percent.

But will these restrictions drive up already expensive fuel prices?

Jason Hennessy, a consultant from business management group BERK Consulting, said the fossil fuel industry is heavily influenced by seasons and various global mechanisms, making pricing more complex than just focusing on supply and demand. Efforts similar to what Vancouver is pursuing on a local level won’t budge these prices, he said.

Cost impacts through these code amendments would be minimal compared with national and global market trends — perhaps half a cent or a cent per gallon. Specifically, Hennessy noted that restricting storage capacity may increase fuel costs for consumers due to additional transportation costs.

“Even that (price bump) seems overstated,” he said.

Defensible changes

When the city of Vancouver previously issued a State Environmental Policy Act Determination of Non-Significance — meaning proposed codes would have minimal impacts — it was challenged by the Western States Petroleum Association. During the moratorium extensions, staff revisited code language to ensure it would be defensible from fossil fuel groups’ appeals.

Stakeholders from the Port of Vancouver, environmental groups and fossil fuel facility representatives received the draft amendments.

In a letter to staff, Southwest Washington’s Alliance for Community Engagement, Washington Environmental Council and Columbia Riverkeeper backed the efforts, yet had suggestions for the city. They requested further clarification on Vancouver’s definition of “cleaner fuels” to reduce ambiguity for fossil fuel-based alternatives. Moving forward, they also advised that Vancouver should consider similar bans on petrochemical facilities.

A public hearing with the planning commission is scheduled for Sept. 13, which will tentatively be followed by a Vancouver City Council meeting on Oct. 4. If adopted, the ordinance would take effect 30 days after the meeting.

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