When federal regulators came to Southern Oregon in June for hearings on a massive gas export project, they were greeted by a grassroots resistance movement 15 years in the making. About 800 people attended a series of four hearings put on by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC. Those speaking out against the gas project represented rural landowners, local governments, fisheries interests, tribal governments, and climate activist groups.
“This project has brought people together from across the political spectrum,” said Rogue Climate campaigns director Allie Rosenbluth. “Whether people speak out against the threat of eminent domain or climate change, we all know it isn’t good for our communities. That’s why so many people have been coming out year after year for over a decade to oppose it.”
Southern Oregon is one of the most important remaining battlegrounds for a movement that has defeated coal, oil and gas terminals up and down the Pacific Northwest Coast. The region is home to the proposed Jordan Cove LNG export terminal (LNG being short for liquefied natural gas) and the Pacific Connector pipeline that would connect to it. Together, they are among the last major Northwest fossil fuel export proposals still moving forward. With permitting processes for these related projects entering a critical phase, the resistance is ramping up for a decisive battle.
The stakes are high both for the climate and locally impacted communities. The 229-mile-long Pacific Connector pipeline would span four counties and cut through hundreds of private landowners’ property, leading many rural residents to join hands with climate activists in fighting it. The pipeline would also cross land owned by the Klamath Tribes, which formally oppose the project because of impacts on the environment and ancient burial grounds. Other tribes whose ancestral territory would be affected — including the Yurok, Karuk, and Tolowa Dee-ni’ nations — have also spoken out.
In a letter to FERC announcing the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Tribal Council’s opposition, Council chairperson Denise Richards-Padgett highlighted threats to the Rogue River headwaters, writing, “Water is a life source to the Tolowa people and the integrity of any water flowing into the Tribe’s aboriginal lands and territory may not be compromised.”
The climate implications of liquefied natural gas have been another concern since the beginning. While natural gas is often touted as a lower-carbon alternative to coal, super-cooling and transporting it across the ocean in giant tankers adds significantly to its carbon footprint. A recent report from Oil Change International estimates all emissions associated with Jordan Cove LNG would amount to 15 times the carbon footprint of Oregon’s Boardman Coal Plant, currently the state’s biggest polluter.
“This terminal and pipeline would create seismic climate justice, economic, ecological, health and safety problems well beyond the four directly impacted counties,” said Bonnie McKinlay, a volunteer with Stop Fracked Gas-PDX — a Portland-based group that organizes in solidarity with frontline communities affected by natural gas projects, including Jordan Cove.
Due in large part to its climate implications, Jordan Cove LNG has been a focus of climate activists throughout the Northwest since it was proposed 15 years ago. Over that time, the diverse coalition that came together to oppose it expanded and took on other fossil fuel projects, helping lay the foundation for a mass grassroots movement that has turned the entire Pacific Northwest region into a hub of anti-fossil fuel resistance. Yet, even as other fossil fuel export proposals were put forward and defeated, final victory over Jordan Cove has remained elusive. Now, activists hope they finally have an opportunity to end this 15-year fight conclusively.
Paving the way for the Thin Green Line
The origins of Jordan Cove LNG date back to 2004, when the U.S. energy landscape looked dramatically different from today. That year Colorado-based Energy Products Development LLC announced plans to build a liquefied natural gas import terminal on Coos Bay in Southern Oregon. The company submitted a notice of intent to the state, kicking off a permitting process that would drag on for years, as ownership of the project changed hands and its purpose switched from importing to exporting liquefied natural gas.
At that time, the U.S. fracking boom and later dramatic growth of renewables had not yet transformed the economics of energy in this country. The United States was still a net fossil fuel importer, and Jordan Cove LNG was one of three projects proposed in Oregon by different companies to import super-cooled liquid gas from overseas before re-gasifying and sending it through pipelines to major U.S. energy markets — mainly in California.
Early resistance to liquefied natural gas from the public confronted all three projects: Jordan Cove, Bradwood Landing LNG near Astoria, and Oregon LNG near Warrenton. In 2010, Bradwood became the first project to fold when its corporate backer, NothernStar Natural Gas Company, filed for bankruptcy and liquidated its assets. Bradwood LNG was partly a casualty of the fracking boom — which, by that time, had undermined the rationale for new gas imports. However, other effects of fracking would play out in the Pacific Northwest in ways much more sinister for the climate.
A combination of low natural gas prices and grassroots opposition to coal led to a shift away from coal combustion and caused U.S. coal producers to eye overseas markets. At the same time, the unexpected glut of gas and oil from fracking put pressure on companies to export those fuels. Over the course of a few years, coal and oil export proposals popped up in port towns up and down the Oregon and Washington coasts. Around the same time, backers of both Oregon LNG and Jordan Cove LNG changed their proposed business models from importing to exporting natural gas.
In an iconic protest against fossil fuel exports in July 2013, climate groups — including Rising Tide Portland and 350 Portland — dropped a massive banner from a bridge above the Columbia River reading “Coal, Oil, Gas: None Shall Pass.” It was something of a coming-out moment for a new type of movement in the Pacific Northwest focused on opposing not just any one type of fossil fuel exports, but all of them.
That growing resistance — which seeks to prevent the Northwest from becoming a major fossil fuel export zone — came to be known informally as the Thin Green Line. This movement had the benefit of being able to learn from the model for diverse coalition-building and grassroots organizing developed in the already years-old fight against liquefied natural gas.
Resisting gas exports in the Trump era
In order to break ground, Jordan Cove LNG — now owned by the Canada-based Pembina Pipeline Corporation — needs a series of permits from the state of Oregon, local governments and FERC. In 2012, when Jordan Cove officially switched to an export project, FERC vacated an earlier permit that hinged on being a gas importer. In 2016, FERC twice denied new applications from Jordan Cove LNG.
It was almost unheard of for FERC — an agency notorious for rubber-stamping permits — to actually say no to a major fossil fuel project. But this was during the late months of the Obama administration, when high-profile protests against projects like the Dakota Access pipeline seemed to be causing the federal government to re-think its attitude toward new fossil fuel infrastructure. Then Donald Trump became president and everything changed again.
In February 2017, under the new fossil fuel-friendly administration, FERC allowed a new permit application for Jordan Cove LNG to move forward. This initiated a new phase of permitting at both state and federal levels, as well as a new wave of grassroots resistance that reached a crescendo this summer.
In January 2019, the Oregon Department of State Lands held public hearings in Southern Oregon and the capital city of Salem on a “remove and fill” permit Jordan Cove needs from the state to move forward. “Over 3,000 people showed up to the hearings,” Rosenbluth said. “Now we’re keeping pressure on Gov. Kate Brown. We believe it’s really critical that a governor who claims to be a climate champion reject projects like Jordan Cove.”
While Brown has pushed climate bills in the state legislature and issued executive orders meant to curb Oregon’s carbon emissions, her stance on Jordan Cove LNG has been non-committal so far. “We’ve had folks showing up at her speeches, fundraisers and public appearances to confront her on this project,” Rosenbluth added. “We hope Gov. Brown stands with communities in Southern Oregon who’ve been asking her to stop Jordan Cove LNG for as long as she’s been in office.”
Climate activists throughout Oregon are also doing their part to pressure the state and Brown, who plays a critical role in decisions about Jordan Cove — both as a member of the State Lands Board and the ultimate overseer of all state agencies. “We carpool to Salem for hearings and rallies at the State Lands Board office and the Capitol building,” McKinlay said. “We bird-dog elected officials with ‘We Want Clean Energy, Not Fracked Gas!’ signs. We collect signatures and comments and host comment-writing workshops.”
While state permitting decisions move forward, FERC is engaging in a parallel review process — one that includes the June hearings in Southern Oregon.
Opponents of Northwest fossil fuel exports have had plenty of practice turning out to hearings over the last 15 years. Public hearings on coal, oil and LNG have attracted hundreds or thousands of people, with participation coming to seem like something of a civic duty for climate activists. An almost carnival-like atmosphere prevails at many such hearings where people from across large geographic areas come together for what feels like a celebration of the resistance to fossil fuels. The events often include lively rallies outside the hearing venue, public art installations and packed auditoriums where activists give verbal comments in front of hundreds of people.
In an apparent effort to avoid such public spectacle, FERC chose a new format for its Jordan Cove hearings. Those who signed up to give comments were called one by one into a “private” hearing room to deliver their testimony to a single court reporter. But that didn’t stop activists from finding other ways to draw attention to their cause.
“At each hearing, we held block parties outside while FERC took comments,” Rosenbluth said. “There was lots of music and art. Then we held a rally later in the evening so people could come after work. We were determined to make our voices heard.”
A last stand for Northwest fossil fuel exports?
More than a dozen major proposed fossil fuel export projects have been abandoned by their corporate backers or rejected by regulators in Oregon and Washington over the last 10 years. Almost none of the largest facilities have broken ground. A handful of projects remain, including a proposed gas-to-methanol plant in Kalama, Washington; an oil-by-rail facility expansion in Portland; a liquefied natural gas project proposed in Tacoma in 2014; and Jordan Cove LNG with its associated Pacific Connector Pipeline. The latter is by far the oldest of these surviving proposals.
Despite fatigue from a decade-and-a-half-long fight, the big turnout at the recent FERC and Department of State Lands hearings shows that grassroots resistance to fossil fuel exports in the Pacific Northwest is as strong as ever. If and when Jordan Cove is defeated, the moment could be remembered as the point when the Thin Green Line beat back one of the last major attempts by the fossil fuel industry to use the Northwest as an export hub.
“Right now this is the largest LNG proposal on the West Coast of the United States,” Rosenbluth said. “If we in the Northwest want to stop fossil fuel exports in our communities, this project must be stopped as well. This movement is building and if we continue to come together and find common ground, we can make sure there are no fossil fuel exports on our coast.”