John Spellman and the saving of Puget Sound, 1982

A new biography of Gov. Spellman, the last Republican governor in the state, tells how he resisted enormous economic and political pressure for an oil pipeline under Puget Sound. Plus, another threat days after his epic pipeline decision.
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John Spellman while governor

A new biography of Gov. Spellman, the last Republican governor in the state, tells how he resisted enormous economic and political pressure for an oil pipeline under Puget Sound. Plus, another threat days after his epic pipeline decision.

Editor’s note: The following article is excerpted from a new biography by John C. Hughes, “John Spellman: Politics Never Broke His Heart.” It recounts a story, relevant today in the controversy over coalports on Puget Sound, of an abortive effort to build the Northern Tier Pipeline for shipping Alaska crude oil to the Midwest. Tankers from Alaska would have called on Port Angeles, where a pipeline would have been built under Puget Sound, along the Snoqualmie River, across the Cascades, and then 1,500 miles to Minnesota. The proposal put huge political pressure on Spellman, who was governor 1980-84; prior to that Spellman, a liberal Republican, was the first King County Executive, as King County government shifted from the "courthouse gang" days to modern government. Spellman defeated Jim McDermott, in 1980, after losing to Dixy Lee Ray in 1976, and was in turn bounced from office in 1984 by Booth Gardner, a moderate Democrat. Spellman paid the price for raising taxes and defying special interests in a tumultuous term marked by a serious recession and a hard-right Republican Party rising to sweep away moderates like Spellman. This excerpt recounts one of his most celebrated examples of principled courage. The first part, published yesterday, laid the groundwork for Spellman's wrenching decision.

Author John C. Hughes worked for 42 years at the Aberdeen Daily World, retiring as editor/publisher and then becoming the state’s chief oral historian in the Office of the Secretary of State. His previous books include biographies of Slade Gorton and Booth Gardner. The Spellman book is available for purchase for $35 plus tax and shipping at the Secretary of State's website,  and will soon be available on Amazon and as an e-book.


On April 8, 1982, Spellman announced his decision. “It should be no surprise to anyone that I am rejecting the application of Northern Tier Pipeline.”

He had read and considered the council’s findings — “an epic process of due process.” Northern Tier had a year to present its final case, yet only “begrudgingly” gave evidence. The record was replete with its failure to support the feasi­bility of the project. An underwater pipeline capable of carrying nearly a million barrels of oil a day through an area with a history of earthquakes that could liquefy soils in seconds would be a “very real threat to Puget Sound, which in my mind is a national treasure.”

As for Port Angeles, an explosion or fire could place thousands in harm’s way. Only 110 permanent jobs would be created by the project, while tens of thousands of people depended on the Sound for their livelihood. Spellman hoped to create many more jobs by promoting Washington ports as the hub of American trade with the Pacific Rim. He wanted to make it clear that he was not banning all pipe­lines, just this one. “It is the governor’s duty to protect the state’s environ­ment, its natural resources and, above all, the interests of its people. … I am satisfied that the findings of fact, conclusions of law and recommendations of the council are supported by the record. I concur therein.”

With that, he signed the order. Asked at a press conference how he would react to a federal attempt to override his decision, he said, “I would view it as illegal and probably immoral.” Northern Tier’s chairman said he couldn’t help thinking that if Dixy Lee Ray had been re-elected governor in 1980, they’d be ordering pipe. “She would have been less legalistic.”

“It is a sad day when a major energy project from which all Ameri­cans would benefit is denied to them,” said Energy Secretary James Edwards.

Congressman Al Swift, the Demo­crat whose district was in the pipeline’s path, called Spellman’s decision “wise and courageous.” He warned that Northern Tier wouldn’t give up. Spellman ordered the state Department of Ecology to file suit in federal court in Seattle to overturn the pipeline permits the Corps of Engineers had issued prior to his decision. “This is a state’s-rights case,” said Don Moos, the department’s director. “If you could put this suit to music, you’d probably use the Washington State (University) fight song.”

Spellman had stood his ground. And Ronald Reagan, a former Western governor, apparently wasn’t inclined to give him the full “Gipper” treatment when saber-rattling by the Energy secretary and other officials had failed to shake Spellman’s resolve. Defense Secretary Cap Weinberger, a Reagan confidant, refused to participate in the Spellman arm-twisting because he worried that the pipeline “actually might not be in the best interests of national defense,” multiple reliable sources told Seattle Times reporters Dean Katz and Eric Pryne. Defense strategists feared the pipeline would reduce the size of the U.S. oil-tanker fleet. “In the event of a war or national emergency, the Pentagon wants to have as many American tankers available as possible.”

A year later, after meeting with Spellman, Northern Tier officials threw in the towel. Getty Oil, which now owned two-thirds of the company, couldn’t make the project pencil out.

Who killed Northern Tier? “I’d like to think we were responsible,” said the director of the Washington Environmental Council to the Seattle Times, “but I suspect it was pure economics.” A disappointed Port Angeles businessman added, “Northern Tier was killed by time.” And Spellman had held fast against the tide — twice in the space of a month.

The second occasion arose on March 8, 1982, when the Legislature had sent Spellman a bill that amounted to a spot-zone circumvention of the Shoreline Management Act. It would have allowed Chicago Bridge & Iron to construct huge offshore drilling platforms for Alaskan oil fields on property it owned at Cherry Point just west of Ferndale in Whatcom County. Twenty acres of tidelands — part of a shoreline of “statewide significance” — would be filled. House Speaker Bill Polk and other backers said the project would generate thousands of sorely needed family-wage jobs.

Critics said the area to be filled was part of one of the finest herring spawning grounds in the state. “The herring fishery was a budding industry of its own, and herring were … the staff of life for Chinook salmon and — by way of the salmon — for Puget Sound Orcas,” Bob Sim­mons, a TV reporter who covered the story, recently wrote in Crosscut. The issue had united treaty tribes, commercial fishermen, and sportsmen for the first time in years. But most opponents focused on the legislative jujitsu that had created a special “economic significance” exemption to the Shoreline Act for a single company. The Legislature, in its zeal to create jobs, had “set itself up as a kind of super ‘zoning appeals board’— a role it has no business playing,” a critical editorial in the Seattle Times declared.

Steve Excell was in the wing of the House chamber lobbying against the rezone when Speaker Polk strolled over. “Nothing personal, but I’m kicking you out,” he said. “You’re peeling off too many votes.” Just not enough votes, it turned out.

Spellman surprised environmentalists and angered developers and their legislative allies by vetoing the measure. It did “great violence” to the Shoreline Management Act by creating a precedent that would open the door to piecemeal development of shorelines, Spellman said.

On the day after the governor rejected Northern Tier’s pipeline appli­cation, the Senate overrode his veto of the shorelines bill. But Polk didn’t have the votes to give override it in the House. Chicago Bridge & Iron looked elsewhere.

That summer, the Washington Environmental Council saluted Spell­man as its Elected Official of the Year. The banquet crowd “rose as one, applauding the Republican governor loud and long.” Spellman said it was pleasant to be honored but he’d only been doing what was right. What was good for the environment would be good for economic growth, he said. “I hope I will not let you down in the future.”

The head of the council’s political-action committee remarked afterward that she’d been so thrilled by the Northern Tier and CBI decisions that she was tempted to call Olympia just to say, “I am proud to have him be my governor.”


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