Wash. city votes against Alberta oilsands

A city in upstate Washington is a step closer in its bid to stop using fossil fuels derived from Alberta's oilsands for its transportation needs.
Coun. Michael Lilliquist introduces the fossil fuels motion at a city council meeting in Bellingham, Wash., on Tuesday night. ((City of Bellingham))

A small, environmentally conscious city in upstate Washington has moved one step closer in its bid to stop using fossil fuels derived from the Alberta oilsands for its transportation needs.

City councillors in Bellingham, Wash., on Tuesday voted unanimously in favour of a motion calling on the city "to identify ways to shift operations and consumption away from fossil-fuelled transportation and specifically high-carbon based Canadian tarsands."

"It's the least that we can do," said Coun. Jack Weiss, minutes before he and six fellow councillors approved the motion without debate.

Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach called the city's decision unfortunate, but said the media attention gives him a chance to highlight the progress the province is making on cutting the carbon intensity of the oilsands, and in recycling water used in the process.

"It certainly gives me an opportunity to talk about what we have already accomplished with respect to oilsands development and the good news with respect to reducing carbon per barrel by well over [a] 30 per cent average and in some of the new facilities, anywhere from 40 to 45 per cent," he said in Calgary on Wednesday.

Model for green businesses

Bellingham, with a population of 76,130, is 35 kilometres south of the U.S.-Canada border and is the county seat of Whatcom County.

The county is home to an aluminum plant, four fossil-fuelled electric power plants and two oil refineries that ultimately supply much of the northwest United States, according to city documents.

But it's also a model for green businesses, having developed in 2002 a revolutionary way to educate businesses in sustainable practices, according to the U.S. environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council. 

It ranked first of 15 small cities in the NRDC's list of "smart cities," with strong showings in the categories of air quality, and energy production and conservation.

'A small and important step'

The oilsands are Canada's fastest-growing source of carbon dioxide, emitting five per cent of the country's greenhouse gases. 

Extracting oil from the asphalt-like oilsands produces three times more carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas, than extracting a conventional barrel of oil from the ground. 

An oilsands worker holds raw bitumen at the Shell Albian Sands operation near Fort McMurray, Alta. ((Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press))

"I trust that by now, you understand how bad modern methods of oil extraction, such as those in Alberta, are," said Bellingham resident Kendall Hardy, speaking at the start of Tuesday's council meeting.

She then called on councillors to "take a stand against further destruction." 

"Bellingham alone can't stop this," stressed resident Max Wilbert, referring to the harm done by fossil fuels. "But this resolution is a small and important step in the right direction."

Some jobs in Whatcom depend on what comes out of the oilsands.

In the past, almost half of the crude oil processed at the county's refineries came from Alaska. But recently, the area has "become increasingly dependent on crude oil imports from Canada and other exporting countries," according to a report presented to council in November 2009.

Canada now supplies 15 per cent of the total crude oil at Whatcom's refineries, some of it coming from the oilsands.

On May 10, Bellingham councillors passed a franchise renewal with Trans Mountain Pipeline, which operates a six-metre petroleum pipeline from Edmonton, through Bellingham, to Anacortes, Wash.

The pipeline supplies about 20 per cent of the crude processed at the state's oil refineries, including some that comes from Alberta's oilsands, according to city documents.

The renewal angered many Bellingham residents, who felt it should be denied because the pipeline carries oilsands products.