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Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 5.27.2010

 

Make Love Not Gas

Why should Lane County care about liquefied natural gas?

by Camilla Mortensen

Illustration by Keith Tucker
LNG opponent Olivia Schmidt with one of the campaign’s simple, distinctive signs. Photo by Trask Bedortha
Monica Vaughan of Hey! Northwest Natural wrote her UO masters thesis on LNG. Photo by Todd Cooper

The chances of a massive gas pipeline explosion in your Eugene backyard are pretty slim. For one thing, Lane County currently has just one natural gas pipeline, and it follows the I-5 corridor. For another, natural gas advocates will tell you that pipeline explosions, dramatic as they might be, are few and far between. 

Then again, BP told the federal government that it didn’t need to file an environmental impact statement before the Deepwater Horizon began drilling the well that’s now filling the Gulf of Mexico with toxic oil sludge, killing fish, fowl and marine life, because, after all, what could go wrong? Big oil companies drill all the time without causing disastrous oil spills. A little 36-inch-in-diameter gas pipeline never hurt anybody. Unless, of course, it leaks. Or requires a clearcut or losing some of your property rights or poisons a river.

LNG, liquified natural gas, is a foreign fossil fuel that corporations want to ship into Oregon on giant ocean tankers. The tankers will offload their cargo to a terminal that reheats the liquid back to natural gas before it’s then transferred through pipelines. Conservationists oppose not only the terminals, whose sites have been proposed in environmentally sensitive areas, but also the gas pipelines, which cut through old-growth forests, under pristine rivers and through threatened habitats. Farmers and private landowners object to having pipelines forced upon them through eminent domain, and pretty much everyone wants to know how it is that out-of-state energy corporations seem to have more rights than do Oregonians and their lands.

Four LNG import terminals have been proposed in Oregon. Port Westward, proposed for St. Helens, never got off the ground, and Bradwood Landing, also on the Columbia River, seems to be defunct now that its parent company, Texas-based NorthernStar, has gone bankrupt. But Oregon LNG’s proposed terminal in Astoria, as well as the Jordan Cove project in Coos Bay, are still fighting to be the first —  and most likely the only — LNG terminal in Oregon. And each terminal, which LNG opponent Olivia Schmidt calls a “pretty severe public safety threat” and a top five terrorist threat, would come with a gas-filled pipeline running for hundreds of miles across Oregon. 



Foul Foreign Fossil Fuel?

Explosions do happen, and they aren’t the only problem with liquefied natural gas. Natural gas has been touted as a cleaner bridge fuel that can lead us away from coal’s dirty power and toward cleaner burning natural gas for our electricity as well as home and water heating needs. The idea is that in the end we would gradually make our way to renewables like wind and solar power.

But LNG is not the same thing as natural gas, says Schmidt, who serves as a community organizer for a diverse coalition of anti-LNG campaigns ranging from farmers to environmentalists to commercial fishermen to states and property rights advocates.

LNG is natural gas that has been cooled to -260 degrees Fahrenheit to become a clear, odorless liquid. When natural gas is cooled to a liquid it occupies 600 times less space than in its gaseous form, making it easier and more cost effective to ship long distances. Once cooled, the gas is transported through pipelines throughout Oregon or, more precisely, opponents say, through Oregon and down to California.

According to Brett VandenHeuvel of Columbia Riverkeeper, a group that’s been opposing LNG since 2005, “The Oregon Department of Energy did a needs assessment as to whether LNG was needed in Oregon and concluded it was not.” He says the DOE assessed that we have an adequate supply of natural gas for the long term in the U.S. and that potentially the LNG coming from foreign sources could be unstable and more expensive. 

The energy companies kept saying, “We need gas; we need gas; we need gas. Canada is going to cut us off, and ultimately that proved not to be true,” says VandenHeuvel. 

“There’s a reason California rejected every LNG terminal,” says Monica Vaughan of the Hey! NW Natural anti-LNG campaign. 

Keith Morey, whose Washington County, Ore., farm faces a the prospect of an LNG pipeline running through it, says California “has rejected several of these facilities. They need the energy. They thought they could slip it by a bunch of redneck hillbillies up here in Oregon.”

Though LNG companies have denied the gas is destined for California, a 2007 PowerPoint presentation made by Oregon LNG outlining its LNG terminal plan for Warrenton on the Columbia River to the California Energy Commission ends with the statement, “Conclusion: The pipelines to California WILL be kept full!”

Schmidt, who entered the LNG fray in 2007 when she and other students learned about the gas plans at the Climate Convergence Conference, says not only will these terminals be importing gas aimed for California, they will be shipping it in on tankers “like little bombs floating on the river” from countries like Russia and Qatar, and all the while increasing U.S. dependence on foreign fossil fuels. According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), “Indonesia, Algeria, Malaysia, Qatar and Trinidad are currently the leading exporters of LNG. Russia and Iran also have the greatest potential.”

When energy companies say we don’t have enough natural gas in Oregon, Canada and the Rockies to supply our future energy needs, Schmidt responds: “Of course the natural gas companies tell you that. If we need new energy sources, let’s get it by using the renewables we have. As long as we flood our energy grid with fossil fuels, they take the place of renewables.” 

It’s this concern with foreign fossil fuels that is one of the first reasons anti-LNG activists, as well as local politicians, think Lane County should be concerned about LNG. Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy, who participated in an LNG panel presentation on the UO campus in May, said, “There is an evolution in how people think about these things.” Piercy explained that where once natural gas was seen as the next clean energy, our need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels as a whole has shown us that “our information and what we thought was right yesterday turns out not to be right today.” She encouraged the UO students at the panel in their plan to contact Eugene City Council members and propose a resolution against LNG.

Lane County Commissioner Pete Sorenson also has some concerns about LNG, and wouldn’t object to a county resolution against it. “There’s a huge connection between what has happened in the Gulf of Mexico and this issue,” he says. Fossil fuel advocates pointed to a “strong safety record, they allege” for the drilling in the Gulf, just as they now point to a strong safety record for LNG, but the LNG process “all points to more risk, more environmental and safety hazards.”

He says county initiatives to focus on clean energy, capturing energy that we already have and on alternatives to petroleum-based industries are adversely affected by LNG. 

The other concern, LNG opponent Francis Eatherington says, is that although the pipelines and terminals are proposed as import facilities, they are actually bi-directional and can be used to export domestic gas as well. A planned import terminal in Kitimit, Canada, was flipped and became an export terminal. It’s hard to see how a company profiting from exporting natural gas somehow benefits the Oregonians whose lands will bear the pipelines, Eatherington argues.

Eatherington co-owns a farm near Coos Bay that is slated to have a pipeline, the Pacific Connector, from the proposed Jordan Cove terminal run through it. The land, called Owl Farm, is part of the nonprofit Oregon Women’s Land Trust, and Eatherington says it exists for women who don’t otherwise have access to land. The farm is flanked by properties, also slated for the pipeline, which belong to farmers that depend on their land to make their living.

“We believe that their hidden agenda is to export this natural gas that we have,” she says.  It’s “hidden” because the argument for the terminals and pipeline is based on public need. She and a range of fellow LNG dissenters argue that the public need simply isn’t there. 



The Feds are condemning your land

In order to get the land for these LNG pipelines, the federal government has authorized the use of eminent domain, also called condemnation. This means a governmental entity, or quasi-governmental government body, such as an energy company, hospital or airport, can take privately owned land, as long as the land will benefit the public and the owner is paid a fair price it. The power of eminent domain is granted by the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, under the clause “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” 

There are about 700 landowners, both private folks and businesses, that would be affected by Jordan Cove’s Pacific Connector Pipeline. 

Michele Swaner, a spokeswoman for the Pacific Connector Pipeline, says that a previous project in Washington involving 500 landowners utilized eminent domain just three or four times. “If you’re putting in a pipeline, you’re going to be in a community for a long time. You want to be good neighbors,” Swaner says.

 The other couple hundred landowners not subjected to eminent domain instead negotiated some sort of settlement with the company that nonetheless involved a pipeline on their land. 

 “You’re sort of at their power. What’s a landowner to do?” says Eatherington, who adds that the Jordan Cove project will give her only 25 percent of the land’s value. A one-time payment of about $900, she says, is what the farm will receive for a permanent pipeline. A small one-time amount is not “just compensation,” say the landowners who fear falling property values and restrictions on their crops, not to mention the threat of gas leaks that will have them living in fear.

The natural gas industry says their “pipelines have a very outstanding safety record.” Kim Heiting of NW Natural adds, “We have 16,000 miles of distribution and transmission pipelines serving Oregon and southwest Washington that we operate safely every day.” NW Natural is a partner in the proposed Palomar pipeline and has proposed a Willamette Valley feeder pipeline that could affect Lane County. It is not LNG based, Heiting says.

 “We stand behind the record of the industry and our commitment to safety,” she says.

But do these proposed pipelines justify the use of eminent domain? 

According to Heiting, “Oregon is one of the few states in the country dependent on a single interstate pipeline,” which she says was built in the 1950s during the Eisenhower administration.

Heiting says a pipeline like Palomar is needed to address concerns about providing Oregon with enough natural gas to both heat homes and to aid in the transition away from the dirty coal burning used to generate electricity at the Boardman power plant, and to back up renewables such as solar and wind power. PGE, which operates the Boardman plant, has proposed a shutdown date of 2020 rather than to put expensive pollution controls in place.

But when it comes to fossil fuels and LNG, do the ends justify the means?

The issue here isn’t only eminent domain, according to Steve Wick and his wife Carol, farmers who face having not one but two pipelines (Palomar and Oregon LNG) through their property.  It’s also about the federal government controlling the futures of states and small communities.

Heiting says that even though Bradwood Landing LNG is no longer in the works, NW Natural is still working on the Palomar pipeline. The eastern portion of the pipe, she says, is still necessary to provide a second gas pipeline into Oregon and would carry domestic, not LNG-based natural gas. The western portion, from Molalla to the Columbia River, was the only part linked directly to LNG. It still could be linked to the proposed Oregon LNG project in Warrenton, opponents say.

Because pipes are buried just three feet below the ground, farmers are prevented from planting deep-rooted crops over the pipelines. Wick says the pipelines will decimate his farm, which was a retirement dream. If he and his wife plant the hazelnut and grape orchards they had planned, there’s no telling when a 100-150 foot swath will be cut through the crop for the construction of the pipelines. Wick says that even after construction the pipelines’ 50-foot permanent right-of-way cuts through his planned crops. “So my life is on hold, and so is our retirement income,” Wick says.



Whose power?

Oregon LNG, Palomar, the Pacific Connector and their associated LNG terminals all owe thanks to the Bush administration’s Energy Policy Act of 2005. 

According to Congressman Peter DeFazio, the Bush administration and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) amended the Natural Gas Act of 1938 to give FERC the exclusive authority to site onshore LNG facilities. This preempted the siting authority of states. In other words, FERC can override Oregon’s right to decide if it wants an LNG facility and its associated pipelines.

“They’re essentially telling us that our law is not valid as it applies to this issue,” says Sorenson, who adds, “It’s a bad idea to take state and local government out of the picture.”

 And as for that need-based public good part of eminent domain, Oregon Attorney General John Kroger’s office said in a January press release on the case, “FERC’s decision doesn’t address the need for LNG or compare alternatives to the Jordan Cove facility.”

 DeFazio calls the FERC siting authority a “federal power grab” and says, “I believe the decision on whether and where to site a facility should remain in the hands of state and local officials who, after all, understand the local environmental, economic and security situations better than faceless federal bureaucrats.” 

In 2006, DeFazio asked FERC to provide an assurance that no private property would be seized. “I also objected to the routing of the pipeline, which potentially crosses over sensitive and landslide-prone federal lands,” he says.

Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley introduced legislation into the Senate in March to repeal the portions of the Energy Policy Act that gave the siting authority to FERC instead of the individual states.

The only weapon the state has against this is calling upon environmental protections, which seems to have worked in the case of Bradwood Landing. When the hold up by federal and state permitting processes wore out the patience of its investors, it went bankrupt. 



If it’s so clean, why does it feel so dirty?

Lawsuits from the Western Environmental Law Center and AG Kroger question FERC’s permits for the LNG terminals. Tony Green of AG Kroger’s office says the issues in the cases the AG has filed against Bradwood Landing and Jordan Cove “are similar in both cases even though they are in different postures: violation of Coastal Zone Management Act, Clean Water Act and National Environmental Policy Act.” 

In response to questions about the environmental and safety impacts of the proposed Jordan Cove LNG terminal, Project Manager Bob Braddock says, “those have been fully dealt with in the EIS [environmental impact statement] and I think have been appropriately addressed. Any large project does have environmental consequences.” 

Olivia Schmidt says the site for Bradwood was proposed in a critical salmon nursery, and all three of the terminals would involve dredging that could harm marine habitat. Also, at Bradwood the water temperatures in the Columbia would have been affected by the LNG tankers cooling their engines and the re-gasification facilities reheating the LNG, and those temperature fluctuations would have devastated salmon habitat. And then there’s all those salmon that the tankers would suck up as they drew in water for ballast to replace the weight of the offloaded LNG.

Susan Jane Brown, a WELC attorney working on the Jordan Cove case, says that the LNG terminal there plans to dredge the estuary, which is ESA (Endangered Species Act) protected habitat for a number of species. The pipeline construction, she says, would destroy habitat for Coho salmon, spotted owls and other species, and would require clearcutting of hundreds of acres of the remaining old-growth forests on public lands. Water quality in the Coos, Umpqua, Rogue and Klamath watersheds would also be threatened.

She calls the pipeline “a pretty significant health and safety concern,” adding that, “I wouldn’t want to be near an exploding pipeline, and neither do these folks want it in their backyard.”

Swaner, who represents the pipeline, says the company observes a rigorous safety protocol and that the pipeline is constructed of epoxy coated steel, hydrostatically tested and protected against corrosion. Even though the gas is not scented all the way through the line with mercaptan — that’s the stuff that gives natural gas and, interestingly enough, Corona beer its weird smell (the lime you squeeze in your beer gets rid of it) — Swaner says you can detect a leak because it kills off the vegetation around the pipeline.

The natural gas industry points to its strong safety record, but the oil industry also pointed to its record before the Deepwater Horizon disaster began spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico. And natural gas pipelines do corrode and leak, and are affected by unstable soils, earthquakes and other natural disasters, say opponents. “The company has always said that’s not likely; that’s the worst case scenario,” says Monica Vaughan, “but you have people who have family homes within a couple hundred feet of the pipeline.” She points to incidents from Texas to Nigeria in which gas pipelines and LNG facilities that have gone up in flames. 

Even if the pipeline never does shoot fire into the sky, Brown says the pipelines will hurt endangered species and not just the “big ticket ESA species like spotted owls.” There are threatened and endangered plant sites and “maybe the owls can fly away, but the plants can’t.”

Brown says when it comes to water quality in the rivers, the pipeline is run under the riverbed by drilling a tunnel under the waterway and feeding a pipeline through it. “There have been many accidents with that process,” she says. The slurry of sand and chemicals used in drilling the tunnels is subject to “fracking out.” 

In drilling, a high-pressure fluid is injected in order to fracture the rock and make it more permeable. In fracking the fluid spreads out from the borehole, creating a spreading fracture zone around it. The sand keeps the fractures open. The chemicals, enviros say, then seep into waterways and affect, in this case, the pristine Rogue River and other waterways the pipelines cross.

Lesley Adams of Rogue Riverkeeper, one of the groups Susan Jane Brown and WELC is representing, says the “analysis of effects from dredging on sensitive estuarine habitats and marine species was grossly deficient,” for the FERC licensing of the Jordan Cove LNG terminal. She says the amount of material that would be dredged out of the estuary would fill the Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena nearly 14 times. The Pacific Connector pipeline, she says, would require 379 waterbody crossings and clear-cutting of 270 acres of old-growth forests. And that hydrostatic testing? Rogue Riverkeeper wants to know where the 58 million gallons of water to do that testing is going to come from and where this possibly contaminated water is going to be dumped afterwards.

So if everyone from Congress to the AG, from farmers to enviros, thinks that LNG in Oregon is dangerous; takes away Oregonian’s rights to choose their energy future and determine how our public and private land is used; and hurts rivers, forests and habitat, then why are these out-of-state companies trying to put LNG terminals here? 

Profit, says Schmidt, one of the organizers of a May 27 rally at the Northwest Natural Shareholders meeting from 1 to 4 pm at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland (go to www.heynwnatural.org for more info). Schmidt says the entire infrastructure of LNG is just a commodity to be bought and sold for massive future profits.

But there is one silver lining to LNG.

“What is kind of interesting about the whole LNG coalition is just the breadth and diversity of Oregonians that are against this,” says Monica Vaughan, “We find ourselves being in this coalition with strange bedfellows.”

She says, “It’s been a lot of stress on a lot of communities, but the movement has been very good for Oregon — I don’t know if healing is the right word, empowering.”