LNG plant resolution passed by Council

The sausage-making was on full display this afternoon when the City Council once again took up a resolution regarding the liquid natural gas (LNG) plant being built in Tacoma.

Here’s my summary from last week’s committee hearing on the proposed resolution, where they adopted a substitute version that Council member Debora Juarez put forward, then voted down two amendments from Council member Sawant (the original author of the bill). One of her amendments would have struck four lines that suggest that natural gas is more environmentally friendly than diesel or bunker fuel. The second one added a clause specifically opposing the LNG plant; Juarez’s version doesn’t directly oppose the plant, but instead focuses on asserting the Puyallup Tribe’s treaty rights to be consulted in the decisions related to the LNG plant (which hasn’t happened).

This afternoon, Sawant re-submitted her two amendments for consideration by her colleagues. In the public comment session before the bill, several tribal leaders asked the Council to adopt Sawant’s amendments, an interesting turn given her comments last week that tribal members found disrespectful.

Sawant’s first amendment strikes the following language from one of the “whereas” clauses at the front of the resolution:

and data shows that LNG is one choice to fuel some ships and provide natural gas to residential and commercial customers to reduce sulfur emissions, harmful diesel particulate matter by 90 percent, nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide emissions by 90 percent, and carbon dioxide emissions by 35 percent over that of diesel or bunker fuel;

As Sawant, several public commenters, and Council member O’Brien pointed out, this is somewhat misleading “greenwashing.” Those individual statistics are all true, but natural gas is methane, another greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide. And the mining and transportation system for natural gas is known to be leaky, Further, much natural gas is mined through “fracking” which causes several environmental problems.

Sawant and public commenters also pointed out that the language is nearly identical to text on Puget Sound Energy’s web site for the LNG plant.:

LNG, when used as a fuel, improves air quality and reduces health risks. When replacing diesel fuel, it reduces sulphur (SOx) emissions by 100%, harmful particulate matter released by over 90%, nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide (NOx) emissions by 90% and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 35%.

That said, the Council was also concerned about specific health concerns for maritime workers exposed to diesel and bunker fuel exhaust. This concern was expressed to them in a letter from Vince O’Halloran of the AFL-CIO:

As you may already know, most cargo ships today run on diesel or bunker fuel (Heavy Fuel Oils). The proposed facility would provide a critical opportunity to improve air quality for so many of our workers by using a fuel source that reduces over 90 percent of pollutants and reduces greenhouse gasses by 15 to 25 percent as opposed to vessels using HFO’s. As technology continues to evolve and improve, we support efforts to seek options that will further protect human health and reduce climate change, but those choices are not available yet. LNG is here now. We believe that the Port of Tacoma’s proposed LNG facility provides a cleaner, safer alternative for our workers that are out on and around these ships every day.

Currently a TOTE ship servicing Alaska and calling in Tacoma uses 156 workers a voyage including 80 ILWU; 37 mechanics (ILWU& IAM); 12 Tug crew members; 25 Officers and crew; and 2 Pilots. These vessels (2) make 50 voyages a year and that is 156 union employees per vessel call x 2 x 50. This does not include the several hundred truckers driving on and off the docks while the vessels are loading and unloading. 

Herbold read some of this passage in the Council meeting, as an explanation for why she had originally felt comfortable with the “greenwashing” language in the resolution (though not in lifting it from PSE’s site). This left the Council in a very awkward place, stuck between the environmental argument against natural gas but sympathetic to efforts to improve working conditions for maritime workers. O’Brien prepared his own amendment to replace the “greenwashing” section with:

Whereas workers exposed to harmful particulate matter from vessels burning diesel or bunker fuel is a serious health concern and Seattle City Council supports finding energy alternatives that both protect workers and our climate.

In the end, however, Sawant could not rally a majority of her colleagues to support her amendment, and it failed with a 3-4 vote:  she, O’Brien and Herbold voted for it, and Juarez, Johnson, Gonzalez and Harrell voted against it for unstated reasons (Bagshaw and Mosqueda were absent today).   The Council did vote unanimously, however, to still add O’Brien’s language as an additional “whereas” clause.

Sawant’s second amendment, which explicitly urges the PSCAA to reject PSE’s permit application for the LNG facility, also failed, by a 2-5 vote; Herbold flipped to “no.” I asked her by email after the meeting why she voted against Sawant’s amendment, and she responded:

“There was disagreement about whether we should include language explicitly opposing the project.  To my knowledge, there was no disagreement about whether PSE failed to properly consult with the Tribe.  I thought it was important for this resolution to be an expression of what there was agreement upon.”

That disagreement over whether to explicitly oppose the project probably can also be attributed to O’Halloran’s letter, in which he urges the Council not to oppose the project. That left the Council members carefully threading the needle: insisting that the permit process involve consulting with the Puyallup tribe, which has gone on the record opposing the facility, but not  directly opposing it and tarnishing their labor-friendly reputation in the process. It certainly made the environmental activists in Sawant’s “movement” very unhappy, but that’s a lesser concern to Sawant’s colleagues other than O’Brien.

Nonetheless, it was a strange scene: after Puyallup tribal leaders expressed their support for adopting Sawant’s two amendments, the Council — including Juarez — voted them down with little explanation. The final resolution, including O’Brien’s amendment, passed unanimously but the assembled crowd responded with dead silence, a recognition of the rare loss for Sawant’s movement.

For her part, Juarez said little today, as she tried to manage a precarious balance between competing interests without making it obvious she was doing so. Her assertions last week that she wanted to keep the resolution consistent with what she had negotiated with tribal leaders didn’t hold up well today, since she rejected two amendments that the tribal leaders supported and accepted one (O’Brien’s) that she discussed with him for the first time just this morning. At the end of the day, however, she still has a resolution that is a win for the Puyallup tribe as well as for Juarez’s efforts to grow the relationship between Seattle city government and the local tribes.


One comment

  1. A problem rejecting LNG, is the maritime industry has been actively retrofitting and building new ships to utilize LNG. Primarily to achieve emission standards. The changeover is massive and worldwide.

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