By Ted Gleichman
They seemed insurmountable at first: two massive methane export projects in under-employed Oregon, one on the south bank of the Lower Columbia, and the other grabbing a struggling industrial port on the southern Oregon Coast. Each $7 billion-plus plan required hundreds of miles of new pipelines, feeding fracked gas from the Rockies and Western Canada into enormous new processing plants for liquefied natural gas (LNG) at minus-261° Fahrenheit, for “terrorist-magnet” tanker export, with mandatory Coast Guard protection, embargoing other shipping hundreds of days per year, to ship LNG to Asia.
Long-term profits would be tens of billions, with thousands of construction jobs. And natural gas was the bridge to the future, twice as good as good ol’ coal. Developers rolled in with instantaneous political support. Lonely enviros and community activists fighting LNG faced epic headwinds: quixotic struggles by definition.
What a difference a decade makes. Suddenly this spring, our long-term opposition has blended with global market reversal on oil and gas pricing, scientific evolution on fossil fuel climate impact, and comprehensive evidence of irredeemable ecological destruction to put both projects on the edge of oblivion.
On Friday, March 11, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) quietly published an unprecedented decision: the commissioners voted unanimously to deny licenses to the Pacific Connector Gas Pipeline (PCGP) and the Jordan Cove Energy Project (JCEP). In Oregon and nationally, almost all observers were shocked: FERC has been widely seen as just a rubber stamp.
If this decision holds, 232 miles of 36-inch explosive pipeline will not slice along a new perpetual clearcut as wide as an interstate highway, and the Port of Coos Bay will not be dominated by gargantuan towers built on a sand spit for LNG that Asia can now get more cheaply elsewhere.
And then, on Friday afternoon, April 15, an unnamed official for Oregon LNG (OLNG), requesting anonymity, telephoned the mayor and planning director of Warrenton, the small town on the Lower Columbia where OLNG planned to build their LNG export terminal on dredging spoils. The OLNG staffer said their struggling parent company, Leucadia National Corp., would no longer fund their development, so they will withdraw their land use application and abandon terminal and pipeline permitting fights. Simultaneously, an OLNG lawyer emailed the state Department of Environmental Quality, withdrawing state permit requests, and copied the Oregon Attorney General.
If this decision extends to every aspect of OLNG, they will withdraw their pending Final Environmental Impact Statement with FERC, cancelling their planned 87-mile pipeline across Northern Oregon (and perhaps killing another 130 miles of new gas pipeline from Canada through Washington State) to feed a terminal on unstable soil.
Each project was planned, insanely, for the largest, most dangerous earthquake and tsunami zone in North America, the Cascadia subduction zone. The Pacific Northwest is guaranteed to experience a Magnitude 8-9 seismic monstrosity; coastal elevations may change by some 30 feet in about eight minutes. This last hit in 1700; it averages every 250 years; and has about a 1/3 chance of striking during the projected lifespan of these projects.
Together, OLNG and JCEP/PCGP planned to export more than two billion cubic feet of refined methane per day: about three times the Oregon daily use. But now we know there is no fossil fuels solution to the fossil fuels crisis: fugitive methane is a much worse climate disrupter than carbon dioxide.
So the jobs and climate arguments are now flipped. Oregon needs a two-part sustainability program: resilience and renewables. We must rebuild First-Responder, transportation, and community infrastructure for resilience against our earthquake, and we must convert our energy economy to decentralized and utility-scale smart-grid renewables, bolstered with conservation and efficiency.
The impending demise of the only two LNG export projects on the US West Coast is giving us a teachable moment to help heal our corner of the world, for the better: maybe forever.
Ted Gleichman is former chair of and current policy advisor for the Oregon Chapter Beyond Gas & Oil Team, and a member of the national strategy team for the National Sierra Club Stop Dirty Fuels Initiative.