McKibben Comments on Expansion of Coal Exports at Cherry Point (Whatcom County)

by: Posted on: June 23, 2011

Editor’s Note: This article, written exclusively for Read The Dirt, concerns the proposed expansion of the deepwater terminal at Cherry Point north of Bellingham.  Cherry Point is currently Washington’s largest oil refinery and the 28th largest in the U.S.  Cherry Point processes over 225,000 barrels of crude oil per day.  The oil comes from Alaska and Canada.  Owned by BP, the refinery spans 3,300 acres.  The proposed expansion of the deepwater port at Cherry Point is supported by SSA Marine (of which Goldman Sachs owns 49 percent) and Peabody Coal (the largest coal company in the world).  The proposal would increase Cherry Point’s capacity to ship U.S. mined coal, to China.  Below is what Bill McKibben has to contribute to the discussion.

Bill McKibben is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign, which has coordinated 15,000 rallies in 189 countries since 2009. Time Magazine called him ‘the planet’s best green journalist’ and the Boston Globe said in 2010 that he was ‘probably the country’s most important environmentalist.’ Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, he holds honorary degrees from a dozen colleges, including the Universities of Massachusetts and Maine, the State University of New York, and Whittier and Colgate Colleges. In 2011 he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


The proposed coal port in Bellingham seems, at first glance, like a karmically unfair joke: there are few if any towns in the United States that have done more to build their local economies, promote local farming, try to provide real leadership towards a new, clean, possible future. And now the oldest of technologies–coal–is threatening to haunt the town, hundreds of train cars a day lumbering through the downtown, redefining one of the pleasantest burgs in the nation.


But on second thought, perhaps the gods have sent this threat Bellingham’s way because they’re confident people there are enlightened enough to say no. And here’s the thing: if they do say no, I’m pretty sure it will be for all the right reasons.


Not just because of the damage it will do to the town, or to property values, or to the possibilities for a revived waterfront. But also because local people understand that they aren’t just local–that they play a role in the politics of the globe as well. And if it’s bad for Bellingham to ship that coal through, it will be much worse for many other places once it’s burnt.


What kind of places? Small island nations a few feet above sea level, and delta nations like Bangladesh already suffering from a rising sea. Sub-Saharan Africa, where drought from changing climate is already wreaking havoc. The Amazon, which just suffered through its second hundred-year drought in five years. The Arctic, melting steadily. Hungry communities the world over, where rising food prices due to crop failures are sending many to bed with empty bellies.


When I was in Bellingham this spring, I found people eager to fight those coal trains, and eager to be in solidarity with people all over the planet. My work at has brought me in contact with people in almost every country (we haven’t yet had much luck in North Korea), and I’m always impressed by how willing they are to work together, across national boundaries, religious boundaries, class boundaries. Now Bellingham, and all of Whatcom County, has been offered a rare chance to join in that fight. If they block the proposed coal port, it will make it much harder to develop those Wyoming coalmines; some of that carbon will stay in the ground. And if it does, the pressure on all those distant people will ease at least a little.


Few people get as much chance to have real leverage in the fight against global warming as the people of Whatcom County. They’re lucky, I think, and the rest of us are lucky that this question is in their careful hands!

3 Responses to “McKibben Comments on Expansion of Coal Exports at Cherry Point (Whatcom County)”

  • Think global and act local. An opportunity to make a difference.
    by: Abe Cohenon: Friday 24th of June 2011
  • This is a very interesting piece, here are a few follow up question I have. I was wondering if Read The Dirt and or Bill McKibben could help direct people in how to get involved? For I know the issues surrounding this top are crucial yet daunting. What should people do next? How can people in Bellingham get involved in the issue pertaining to coal if they are not already involved? What are some steps that people can do to say "no"?
    by: Anna Bon: Friday 24th of June 2011
  • Thank you fro your question. While the movement to appose the proposed port expansion is still being defined, Re-Sources, a local non-profit, is emerging as a leader in the community's efforts to deny the expansion.
    by: Editoron: Thursday 25th of August 2011

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