Thursday, December 12, 2013

Bellingham Downtown Planning, Old vs. New Economy, and Fracking the Bellingham Field

Schematic of the "Bellingham Basin Gas Play" from Johnson, S. Y.; Tennyson, M. E.; Lingley, W. S., Jr.; Law, B. E., 1997, Petroleum geology of the State of Washington: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1582

Last night I attended "The Downtown Plan" Open House.  This was a topical affair with the Mayor and staff briefing the 100 plus  concerned citizens and staff packed into an Encore Room lined with dozens of presentations on zoning, building heights, parks, and civic space. On one chart I found graphics on  economics and employment.  There was a brief presentation on downtown revitalization for the last ten years: some pretty pictures of street art, redone plazas, public facilities and public spaces.  The general themes of the evening were of self-congratulatory comment, community planning euphemisms and "look what we have done so far" type rhetoric. If it weren't for the two steely-eyed Bellingham cops guarding the entrance, one could almost say 'civic spirit' pervaded the entire Encore Room.
However, if one looked close enough into the eyes of the mayor and her staff, a certain nervousness could be detected beyond the bon vivant projected by the crowd and the fancy graphics.  Perhaps the Mayor has been rattled by recent criticism of her complicity with the Port of Bellingham in the development of a substandard Waterfront Plan. (See EndNotes below). But most who are paying attention know that Bellingham and Whatcom County are now a major battlefield in the struggle between the  Old Economy and the New Economy.  This struggle is best defined by comparing the economies of California and Texas,  but  I will leave that for another post. Bellingham activist and attorney Terry Weschler has an excellent article in The Whatcom Watch describing how our the Pacific Northwest is essentially being turned into a bastion for the Carbon Club. I discuss something similar here.

For better or worse, the success of the American economy hinges upon cheap carbon fuel production: oil, coal, natural gas and now "unconventional" or "fracked" gas and oil. Our fourth corner, which currently hosts four oil refineries, multiple pipelines for oil and gas, tanker ports, trainloads of coal (possibly some day headed to the largest coal port in North America) also has strong possibility for conventional and coal-bed methane gas production in the "Puget trough and Cascasde foothills"[1].  "Bellingham Basin" has been singled out as a potential gas play in Western Washington for some number of years now. One USGS source[2] states:
"Pipelines bringing gas to the Pacific Northwest urban corridor from Alberta, Canada, extend through the Bellingham basin, so local infrastructure is highly favorable for development of a gas resource."
The "Bellingham Basin" has both "conventional" and coal-bed methane gas plays.[2] The conflict between developing a local economy based on educational and service sector wealth vs carbon wealth will likely inform Bellingham's economic dynamic for the foreseeable future, barring changes in policy and technology that could supplant the carbon economy in the Pacific Northwest. Whether or not such an economy will bring health and prosperity to the Northwest is an open question. William Engdahl discusses his critique of the "Fracked-up USA Shale Gas Bubble":
The Halliburton Loophole is no minor affair. The process of hydraulic fracking to extract gas involves staggering volumes of water and of some of the most toxic chemicals known. Water is essential to shale gas fracking. Hydraulic fracturing uses between 1.2 and 3.5 million US gallons (4.5 and 13 million liters) of water per well, with large projects using up to 5 million US gallons (19 Million liters). Additional water is used when wells are refractured; this may be done several times. An average well requires 3 to 8 million US gallons of water over its lifetime.[11] Entire farm regions of Pennsylvania and other states with widespread hydraulic fracking report their well water sources have become so toxic as to make the water undrinkable. In some cases fracked gas seeps into the home via the normal water faucet.
Engdahl's analysis reminds me of a similar analysis done by Sandra Robson for The Whatcom Watch delineating GPT's potential use of Whatcom County water.  If I were the type to ask questions at a public meeting, I might have asked the Mayor, "How will a rush to fracking either gas or oil from Western Washington effect Bellingham's current economy?" Or perhaps something more impertinent like, "Is Sheriff Bill Elfo building such a substantial jail in Ferndale to handle crime increases from "man camps" yet to be built in Whatcom County?"[3]  But alas, I most probably would have received only inquisitive looks at best for my efforts from the crowd that night in the Encore Room. So keep building those beautiful public places, Bellingham. Perhaps the city should find a way to make them "man camp resident" proof...

End Notes

DNR has an excellent page with links to many articles on oil and gas resources in WA State.

This document provides a summary of test wells drilled in the Bellingham Play.

[1] Walsh, T. J.; Lingley, W. S., Jr., 1996, Coal maturation and the potential for natural gas accumulation in western and central Washington State  I purchased this article for $10 from
[2] Johnson, S. Y.; Tennyson, M. E.; Lingley, W. S., Jr.; Law, B. E., 1997, Petroleum geology of the State of Washington: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1582.
[3] For a charming article about the social and cultural aspects of man camps please read

Both the Northwest Citizen and the Cascadia Weekly have produced bitter, excoriating condemnations of the lack of true public involvement in the waterfront planning process and the City of Bellingham's capitulation to the Port of Bellingham on important parts of the waterfront development plan:


Dan McShane said...

There was active coal bed methane exploration in Whatcom County in the mid 2000s including exploration test wells in the Lynden area. For the time interests may have diminished due to surge of natural gas supply and the price decline in natural gas. The economics may shift (as the always do). I am of the view most communities have been ill prepared for the fracking business and am not convinced Washington State is well prepared.

Ryan M. Ferris said...


I've got anonymous sources telling me mineral rights are being purchased all over the Bellingham Basin. If you can help me search the property records, I would like to keep an eye on this. It is a myth that industry is not fracking or does not want to frack the West Coast.