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Wyden, Merkley to Trump: Stay out

Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley sent a letter this week to President Donald Trump asking his administration to stay out of the decision-making process for a proposed natural gas pipeline and export facility in Southern Oregon.

The senators, both Democrats, said members of Trump's administration met with officials from Jordan Cove LNG, which is proposing a 232-mile pipeline that would carry North American natural gas to Coos Bay for export overseas.

Jackson County is among the counties in the pipeline's path.

After the meeting, National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, an adviser to Trump, said, "The first thing we’re going to do is we’re going to permit an LNG export facility in the Northwest."

Oregon's senators said the review and approval process is not in Trump's hands.

"As you should know, the White House is not responsible for permitting natural gas facilities and pipelines — that responsibility rests with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission," Wyden and Merkley said in the letter.

The senators said FERC is an independent agency charged with the permitting of future natural gas and hydropower projects. FERC must consider the potential public benefit of projects.

FERC has previously denied the natural gas project twice, saying any public good is outweighed by potential harm to property owners along the pipeline path. Jordan Cove plans to reapply for permission to carry out the project.

Public hearings about the project in Jackson County regularly draw large crowds of opponents worried about the use of eminent domain to force unwilling landowners to have the pipeline routed through their property. Other opponents worry about environmental impacts, including climate change.

"FERC has a longstanding tradition of bipartisanship, and operates under a deliberative process that includes broad stakeholder engagement, thorough consideration of local concerns, and strict adherence to the law," the senators said in their letter. "In the interest of local communities affected by these decisions, we strongly urge your administration to avoid any step that could be interpreted as political interference in FERC's deliberative permitting process in Oregon and nationwide."

Neither senator has come out in opposition to the pipeline project and export facility, although both have said they do not support the use of eminent domain. The project would create several years' worth of construction jobs along the pipeline route as well as permanent jobs at the export facility just north of financially struggling Coos Bay.

The senators said in their letter FERC's decision should take into account Jordan Cove's recent efforts to prove the project's viability, and weigh that against environmental and property rights concerns.

"These decisions greatly affect local communities and should not be based casually on who occupies the presidency," Wyden and Merkley said in the letter. "America is a nation of laws and due process, and we respectfully insist FERC carry out its review of Jordan Cove's application without political interference from you or those in your administration."

Pipeline opponent Hannah Sohl of Rogue Climate cast doubt on FERC's independence.

"It is highly unrealistic to expect an independent decision from FERC which, as Sen. Wyden and Sen. Merkley know, will soon be stacked by Trump appointees who represent the special interests of oil, gas and coal companies rather than the public interest," Sohl said.

FERC, which is made up of five members, has three openings. Prospective nominees include a lawyer who represented energy clients in cases before FERC, a proponent of the coal industry who has opposed the Obama administration's greenhouse gas reduction rules and a public utility commissioner who has said pipelines are key to the energy sector's growth.

Sohl called on the senators to join the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, landowners, anglers, tourism businesses, tribal leaders, climate groups and others opposed to the pipeline and export facility.

"Both Sen. Wyden and Sen. Merkley have spoken strongly about the need to speed our transition away from fossil fuels and to create clean energy jobs here in Southern Oregon and throughout the state," she said. "A good place for them to start would be to join the opposition to this fracked gas pipeline and export terminal."

Michael Hinrichs, spokesman for Jordan Cove LNG, said the company has no interest in circumventing the full FERC process.

"Any concerns they have about us rushing this or cutting corners or of White House involvement are unjustified," he said. "We have a strict permitting process we'll adhere to."

Hinrichs said Jordan Cove knows it must go through the permitting process with FERC and other regulatory agencies.

Jordan Cove is hopeful that the process could be shorter this time around — not because of political influence but because the company has more data and experience, he said.

"Our hope is we're able to move through this process more efficiently because we can proactively anticipate data requests and update our analyses," Hinrichs said. "We hope we won't need as much back-and-forth."

Jordan Cove LNG is part of the Canadian energy company Veresen.

This week, Veresen and Pembina, also based in Canada, announced plans to merge and form an enterprise valued at $33 billion. Veresen is mainly focused on natural gas while Pembina has oil assets.

The merger could make the Jordan Cove project more financially viable, because market observers had doubted Veresen's ability to fund the estimated $6 billion project, the Financial Post reported.

Hinrichs said the Jordan Cove team will remain in place as the merger moves forward.

"I see this as a positive move to continue moving Jordan Cove through the permitting process and creating a stronger financial backing to a world-class project," he said.

— Reach reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

Bill Jennett, of Talent, participates in an LNG rally in January 2016 outside the Rogue Regency Inn in Medford. Public hearings about the project in Jackson County regularly draw large crowds of opponents. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch