UPDATE: 10/18/13, 2:30 p.m. PT.
This story does not reflect recent donations of approximately $150,000 made to a political action committee that supports Whatcom County Council candidates believed to be sympathetic to the proposed coal terminal in Bellingham, Wash. Donations were made to Save Whatcom, a conservative PAC.
A relatively small county council election in Washington state’s far northwest corner could play a major role in the future of the US coal industry.
The Whatcom County council could end up casting the deciding votes to permit the controversial dock for the Gateway Pacific Terminal, which would transfer coal from trains onto ships bound for Asia. It would be the largest coal export terminal on the West Coast.
That’s put this election in the spotlight, and has drawn an unprecedented amount of outside money – a majority of it from environmental groups hoping to nix the coal port.
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“We’re very committed to fighting and winning any time the issue of climate change is on the ballot,” said Brendon Cechovic, executive director of Washington Conservation Voters, a Seattle-based environmental group. “There are a lot of eyes across the country and around the world watching what’s happening this fall in Whatcom County.”
There are four open seats on the seven-member council. The three councilmembers who are not up for election on this cycle are believed to be supportive of the coal terminal. Opponents of the terminal want to see their favored candidates claim the available seats to secure the majority. They believe they can accomplish this by retaining two incumbents and picking up the other two positions.
There’s a catch: County council positions are considered non-partisan, so candidates aren’t supposed to say whether they support the terminal, because they’ll eventually act as a sort of judicial body in reviewing the permit applications.
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Rather, they use coded language, talking about “creating jobs” or “protecting the environment,” to signal to interest groups how they might vote in the final permitting of the terminal.
Washington Conservation Voters has now pumped more than $160,000 into the Whatcom County council race to support candidates it believes will oppose the Gateway Pacific Terminal. The lion’s share of that money came from California billionaire and environmentalist, Tom Steyer.
The company that wants to build the coal terminal and the rail company that would service it have given more than $40,000 to the state Republican party, which has given about $15,000 to the Whatcom County GOP.
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With two weeks to go before the election, the four candidates who are believed to oppose the coal export terminal have raised more than three times more than their opponents.
“The other side has a lot more money,” said Charlie Crabtree, chair of the Whatcom County Republican party.
Crabtree said the coal terminal is at the heart of the election. “It comes in as an undercurrent to almost anything we do in this campaign,” he said. ”What we’re concerned about as Republicans is that we want an opportunity through a valid process of creating family wage jobs.”
Like the conservation group's contributions, pro-coal money has been earmarked as “independent expenditures,” meaning the funds promote the candidate but don't go to the campaign. Independent expenditures do not have a cap like personal donations do.
“It is unusual to have billionaire philanthropists and big multinational firms coming in and spending money,” said Todd Donovan, a professor of political science at Western Washington University who has been following politics in Whatcom County for 20 years. “But to see these six-figure dollar amounts being spent by groups that aren’t based here in Whatcom County, not even in Washington, that’s unusual.”
In the past, county council candidates have spent closer to $20,000 to get elected. Things are different now, Donovan said.
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“Now you’re looking at $90,000 independent expenditures, candidates raising $80-90,000. The coal issue is helping candidates on both sides raise money, particularly the environmentalists.”
Around Whatcom County, yard signs point to personal allegiances. Some say “No Coal Trains,” while those in support say, “Good Jobs Now: Stop the War on Workers.”
Locally, the Gateway Pacific Terminal has become a lightning rod for the cultural differences between the liberal city of Bellingham, a college town, and the more rural and conservative parts of the county. It has crystallized that cultural divide, Donovan said, “between the environmentalists and the people who want to do what they think they have the right to do with their land.”
Donovan said there are probably about as many anti-coal voters in Bellingham as there are pro-coal voters in the more rural parts of Whatcom county – and that could make for some close races.
The council won’t review the permits for the Gateway Pacific Terminal dock until the state and federal agencies finish an environmental review of the project. That could take at least two years.