The Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) Threat

Columbia estuary , site of defeated Oregon LNG export facility.  Photo by Tiffany Boothe.
Columbia estuary , site of defeated Oregon LNG export facility. Photo by Tiffany Boothe.

Oregon Shores has been working to counter the threat of liquefied natural gas (LNG) development on the Oregon coast for fully a decade.  We consider LNG export schemes to pose threats at many levels.  These facilities would contribute to global warming, threaten public health and safety, damage precious estuarine habitats, and represent grotesque failures of proper land use planning.  The associated pipelines, which would carry the natural gas to the facilities, would pose additional threats to waterways and to the landowners whose property they would cross.

For much of the past decade, we have been attempting to block two such proposed facilities—one at Warrenton, aimed at wetlands near the mouth of the Columbia River and Youngs Bay, and one targeted on Coos Bay’s North Spit.  These are important habitat areas, and entirely inappropriate for development.  They would be vulnerable to an earthquake and resulting tsunami.  These areas will also become increasingly at risk of storm surges and erosion due to the sea level rise associated with climate change, to which they would ironically contribute through facilitating fossil fuel use.  Oregon Shores has stated repeatedly that we would be nearly as opposed to these projects if they involved widget factories rather than what in effect are giant bombs.  Wetland fill and unstable sand spits at low elevations should never again be development sites.

Oregon LNG

Taking the success story first:  In April of 2016, the Oregon LNG corporation withdrew its application to develop an export facility on the Skipanon Peninsula in Warrenton. Oregon LNG informed both the city of Warrenton and the state's Department of Environmental Quality that it would not continue with its appeal of the Warrenton hearings officer's decision to deny the permit on the grounds of interference with fish habitat and recreational activity protected under the city’s comprehensive plan. Oregon Shores and Columbia Riverkeeper worked together in successfully opposing the permit, and attorney Courtney Johnson, representing Oregon Shores as part of our Coastal Law Project, was taking the lead on countering Oregon LNG's appeal at the time the company gave up.

This was a remarkable outcome.  Oregon LNG had been pushing for federal and state approval, intending to ride roughshod over strong local opposition.  Instead, they were blocked at the local level by Oregon’s land use laws.  Opponents in Clatsop County organized very effectively and doggedly to resist the development over many years, and we credit Columbia Riverkeeper with taking the lead in many legal maneuvers in many hearing rooms over the years, but Oregon Shores takes pride in the key role we were able to play in the ultimately successful land use case.

Jordan Cove

The Jordan Cove Energy Project has been looming so long that it has switched from being an import facility to an export terminal, as global fossil fuel markets changed and the U.S. became a natural gas exporter.  Indeed, one of the issues during the long permitting process has been Jordan Cove’s attempt to roll over permits it received for the import facility to cover the very different export terminal, rather than re-apply based on the new circumstances.

Photo of LNG pipeline under construction.
LNG pipeline under construction.

The Jordan Cove facility would require that a 232-mile supply pipeline be built across southwestern Oregon between Coos Bay and Malin, resulting in the degradation of wetlands, forest habitat, and private land along the route.  It would involve crossing five major rivers and approximately 400 streams, much of these waterways being important habitat for salmon runs and many other species.  Landowners opposed to having a pipeline right-of-way cross their lands (only about 30% of those along the route have consented, despite many years of cajoling by Pacific Connector, the subsidiary that would build it) could be forced to surrender through the use of eminent domain to benefit this private interest.  The facility itself would include not only the LNG processing terminal, but a power plant as well (to supply the energy to compress natural gas into supercooled LNG).  These would be located on the North Spit enclosing Coos Bay, which is to say on sand, in an earthquake and tsunami zone, placing the communities of North Bend and Coos Bay at extreme risk should an explosion occur during a disaster.

The project needs authorization under a variety of local, state and federal permits to proceed.  Oregon Shores has been working with a wide range of partners as part of an anti-LNG coalition.  We have contributed to many efforts to block the Jordan Cove development, and in several of the key permitting processes, we have taken the lead.

The key to the ultimate decision thus far has lain with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).  We and our partners have argued that the State of Oregon should reject the project as violating Oregon regulations in many respects (from dredging one of Oregon’s most important estuaries, to impacts to water and air, to the inappropriateness of its location under our land use laws); state denial should trigger federal denial due to the “consistency” provisions of the Coastal Zone Management Act.  In practice, though, state agencies have delayed their own decisions while awaiting a definitive decision by FERC.

The big news during the past year is that FERC denied the project.  This was a major blow to Jordan Cove, and an exhilarating victory for the opponents, but it didn’t put an end to the project.  FERC promptly granted a re-hearing (sort of—it was a re-hearing for the purpose of considering whether to hold a re-hearing).  Further, the denial was based on the impact of the pipeline to landowners, coupled with Jordan Cove/Pacific Connector failing to demonstrate demand, since they did not have contracts for pipeline shipments or ultimate purchasers of the LNG.  FERC thus failed to rule on the environmental impacts at the site of the LNG facility, and left the door open for Jordan Cove to come back should it be able to demonstrate committed purchasers.  (The company has scrambled to find customers, and has lately been claiming it has identified them, but all it has is loose memoranda of interest, not binding contracts.)

Another milestone may be reached on Jan. 29, 2017, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (after having delayed its decision by six months) is due to rule on Jordan Cove’s application for a permit under Section 404 of the federal Clean Water Act.  This is one of the processes in which Oregon Shores has taken a leading role.  Through our Coastal Law Project, a partnership with the Crag Law Center, attorney Courtney Johnson drafted comments on behalf of the anti-LNG coalition.  The Corps could simply delay their decision again, particularly if FERC has not taken further action.  Or the application could be denied with or without “prejudice,” in the legal terminology.  If it is denied “with prejudice,” meaning that Jordan Cove cannot revive the application, that would put an end to the project.  (Jordan Cove and its parent company, Veresen, could attempt to obtain approval for a project in the future, but would have to start the years-long process from scratch.)  The speculation is that FERC may be waiting to see how the Corps of Engineers acts.  If the Corps denies the project, FERC might follow by denying a re-hearing and ending the long struggle.

Oregon Shores and the Coastal Law Project also took a leading role in the parallel state clean water permit process under the jurisdiction of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). As with the federal process, we submitted extensive comments, arguing that the project violates state regulations and should be turned down, regardless of the federal decision-making process.  However, DEQ has delayed, presumably awaiting more definitive action on the federal level.  On Oct. 13, DEQ agreed to allow the applicant to re-start the permit process, allowing Jordan Cove more time to counter opponents’ objections, and in reality stalling in hopes that FERQ will grant a re-hearing and approve the project, clearing the way for state approval as well.

Another crucial permit process involves the pipeline’s route to the North Spit across Coos Bay, which requires a dredge-and-fill permit from the state’s Department of State Lands (DSL).  The application was for a route across Haynes Inlet, an offshoot of the estuary. This process, too, has been delayed.  On Nov. 3, DSL announced that it had agreed with Jordan Cove/Veresen to suspend the Nov. 10, 2016 deadline for the permit decision and extend the process to Aug. 7, 2017.  Veresen had requested an additional four months to explore an alternate route that would not go through Haynes Inlet; DSL would then take another five months to consider the new information submitted.  The proponent’s problem here is that according to state regulations, an estuary should not be disturbed unless there is no possible alternative and even then only if the project is in the public interest, which Veresen had not demonstrated.  It may be that in four months the applicant will seek to demonstrate that there is no alternative, but if a new route is proposed, that would call into question all previous land use processes.

Yet another state-level process involves the associated South Dunes Power Plant, which must be built to power the compression of natural gas into LNG.  This facility required not only local land use permits, but a certificate from Oregon’s Energy Facility Siting Council (EFSC).  Many of the groups fighting the project opposed the granting of the certificate.  When EFSC’s staff nevertheless proposed that the project be approve, many of us appealed, created what is known as a “contested case” hearing.  Oregon Shores, working through attorney Courtney Johnson and the Coastal Law Project, was granted standing to challenge the impacts to the estuary through dredging and filling for the project; others among our colleagues in the coalition opposing the project will contest different aspects.  Many months have been taken up in procedural wrangling about who has standing to participate in the hearing. The timeline for holding the hearing itself is not yet determined.

As with the successful opposition to the Oregon LNG proposal in Warrenton, the Achilles heel if a multinational corporation’s plan to develop a major project with state and federal acquiescence could be the local planning process.  However, whereas city and county officials in Clatsop County took stances against the project, the Coos County commissioners overruled Oregon Shores’ objections and approved the project.  (We won an earlier round, forcing Jordan Cove to pursue a new land use application, rather than rely on permission obtained years earlier when the proposal was for an import facility.)

Fighting the project on the land use planning front has been a key contribution by Oregon Shores to the coalition effort to block the facility.  We will be carrying the battle to the next level, the Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA).  We have already filed our appeal (joined by a number of other project opponents), and briefs are due shortly after Thanksgiving.

In general, Oregon Shores will continue to argue that the damage to public trust resources is unacceptable, and that no substantial public benefit has been demonstrated that would outweigh the damage to the estuary.  There are other, more technical issues, but that is the core argument. Jordan Cove sought the county’s approval for Conditional Use, Compliance Determination and Floodplain Development applications for the new project. Again represented by Courtney Johnson, Oregon Shores argued that the county’s comprehensive plan, zoning ordinance and estuary management plans don’t contemplate a major project like this on the North Spit, dramatically impacting the Coos Bay estuary, and simply won’t accommodate the project. We further argued that the company’s application doesn’t come close to addressing the real risks the facility poses both to human health and safety and to the ecological health of the estuary.

We also contended that the applicant does not come close to demonstrating a public benefit sufficient to justify the interference with “public trust rights”—such as navigation, harvesting (crabs, oysters and so forth) and recreation—that the project and subsequent LNG shipping would create. For instance, LNG tankers require wide safety zones which would seriously interfere with the passage of fishing boats and other shipping on the bay. We do not believe that the desire of a Canadian corporation to ship fracked gas to China through Coos Bay outweighs the impacts to the estuarine environment and to local uses of the estuary.

We further noted that the applicant has failed to adequately address the risks of developing a dangerous facility directly opposite the North Bend airport, and of potential flooding at the site. In addition, we consider that the applicant's proposal for "mitigating" the severe impacts that dredging for the project would have on the Coos Bay estuary is neither adequate nor demonstrably effective.

These arguments did not prevail with either the Hearings Officer or the Coos commissioners.  We are carrying them to LUBA, to see what a disinterested party has to say.  If we are successful at LUBA, we would anticipate that the project proponents will appeal to the courts, so this battle, too, may be prolonged, but victory on this front could foil the project even as federal and state agencies ponderously deliberate.

Oregon Shores believes that this project would harm Oregon’s clean water and the people and species that depend on it, put public safety at risk, contribute to global warming, and set a terrible precedent for development in areas that will be vulnerable both to earthquakes and tsunamis and to sea level rise. It is clearly not in the public interest. Members and other concerned citizens are urged to advocate for protection of the people and watersheds of Oregon from exploitation by denial of all permits and certifications that the various agencies are evaluating.