Views on gas pipeline project vary widely
A proposed natural gas pipeline and export terminal in Southern Oregon would be either an environmental disaster or economic boon — all depending on who you asked at a public comment session in Medford.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is reviewing the project, set aside seven hours on Wednesday to listen to widely varying testimony. People took a number, then spoke privately with a FERC staff member and court reporter.
Plenty were willing to share their views on the 229-mile natural gas pipeline that would cross through Klamath, Jackson, Douglas and Coos counties to a proposed export facility north of Coos Bay.
So far, the Canadian company Pembina has reached voluntary agreements with 75% of private landowners along the pipeline route for use of their land. The pipeline would be buried underground.
Jackson County landowner Tom Terbeck has signed an agreement to let the company use about one mile of his land.
“They have been very fair and cordial to me. I originally opposed the pipeline,” said Terbeck, who lives near Butte Falls.
He said transporting natural gas through a pipeline is safer than carrying it by truck or rail.
But Toni Woolsey, whose property near Trail is along the pipeline route, said she wants FERC to deny the project. She fears her land will be used without her consent through the eminent domain process.
“I am exhausted by the many times this project has been considered for eminent domain,” Woolsey said.
FERC denied a previous version of the project in 2016, saying potential impacts to landowners outweighed potential benefits.
Pembina took over the project proposal from a previous company and is trying again.
Carole Nilson, a Medford resident concerned about plans to cross beneath the Rogue River, said, “I really think this is ill-conceived. What don’t they understand about no? They’ve been told ‘no’ so many times at every juncture.”
Workers came from Jackson County, the Pacific Northwest and interior Western states like Colorado and Utah to show their support for the project.
Ashland resident Mike Scarminach, a business manager for an electrical workers union, said the large-scale project would help current workers and draw new workers into the trades.
“This will give our apprenticeship program in the state a jump start,” Scarminach said.
Oregon lost workers in the construction trades during the last recession. The shortage is being exacerbated as skilled Baby Boomers retire, and not enough young workers take their place, he said.
Scarminach said apprentices are given tasks they can handle and work under close supervision. They spend three to four years perfecting their skills alongside experienced workers.
Construction on the $9.8 billion pipeline and export terminal project would take four-and-a-half years, according to Pembina.
For people with good spatial and mechanical skills, the trades offer lucrative careers without the heavy burden of college debt, Scarminach said.
Once the project wraps up, experienced workers and those who learned a new trade would fan out, benefiting the economy for years to come, he said.
“They’ll be able to find employment. There’s a shortage right now. We will have qualified people ready to work and fill those gaps. There’s really no downside to it,” Scarminach said.
Eugene resident Jeff McGillivray, a business representative for a Pacific Northwest plumbers and steamfitters union, said workers in the industry can make $90,000 per year with good benefits, including health care and retirement. They can earn even more through overtime.
McGillivray said Coos County is losing its high school graduates because they have to leave to find careers.
“It will create opportunities for kids coming out of high school,” McGillivray said of the project.
Luke Lafley flew in from Spokane, Washington, to say the boilermakers union for Oregon, eastern Washington and northern Idaho supports the project, which will ship natural gas overseas.
“It’s a clean fuel. We can keep sending coal to Asia or we can send them natural gas,” he said.
A contingent of elected officials from Utah, Colorado and Wyoming also came to Medford to advocate for the project. The states have vast reserves of natural gas and the officials want better access to Asian markets.
Colorado resident and Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese said the project would be an economic driver in her state and would help buffer the local economy from fluctuations in the oil and gas market for more than 20 years.
“It also helps us to then continue to diversify our economies and make our counties fiscally stronger,” Pugliese said.
She said Mesa County is a rural area like Coos County, and the two areas face economic hardship.
The Colorado and Utah-based Ute Tribe, which also has natural gas reserves, is part of the pro-pipeline alliance, although tribal members did not travel to Medford.
Jordan Clark, a representative from the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development, said the pipeline and export facility offer economic benefits to a broad swathe of the West, from the interior states to Oregon.
But Eric Hanson, founder and CEO of True South Solar in Ashland, said the country should be transitioning to renewable energy.
Since its founding in 2010, True South Solar has installed more than 700 solar systems in the Rogue Valley. It has 17 workers, including people who work in installation, sales and administration, he said.
Hanson said renewable energy will be one of the fastest growing sectors in the American economy for years to come, offering jobs now and into the future.
Hannah Sohl of Rogue Climate said FERC’s one-on-one public comment format made it hard for people to publicly voice their opposition to the fossil fuel project.
“Our communities should be focused on transitioning to clean energy instead,” Sohl said.
Members of the Yurok Tribe said the Klamath River, which would be crossed by the pipeline, cannot bear any further environmental damage.
Dams, water diversion, warm water that triggers toxic algae blooms and fish kills have plagued the river, they said.
Tribe members said the pipeline proposal never seems to go away, no matter how many times it gets denied.
“They call it the ‘zombie pipeline’ because it dies and it comes back and it dies and it comes back,” said Yurok Tribal Council Support Assistant Georgiana Gensaw.
Wildland firefighter and former hot show crew member Jacqueline O’Keefe said much of the land along the pipeline route is designated as moderate to high fire risk by the state of Oregon.
She said construction activities along the route — including welding, burning of cleared trees and hot vehicles parked on tall, dry grass — could spark wildfires.
Firefighters who would normally focus on protecting communities would be called in to fight wildfires on remote sections of the route, she said.
O’Keefe said the pipeline puts firefighters at unnecessary risk.
The pipeline would cross 147 miles of private property and privately owned timberlands. It would also go through 82 miles of publicly owned land, including U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management property.
The construction corridor would be 95 feet wide, according to BLM Project Manager Allen Bollschweiler. [Figure corrected online.]
Once the pipeline was installed, trees would have to be kept permanently cleared along a 30-foot wide corridor, he said.
Trees would be cut and not allowed to regrow on BLM land that is designated for old growth reserves and also timber harvest, Bollschweiler said.
The BLM would have to change the land designations to make the permanent removal of trees legal, he said.
Pembina is seeking a variety of exemptions to environmental regulations on Rogue River-Siskiyou, Umpqua and Winema National Forest land, according to an informational poster set up by the Forest Service at the comment session.
Pembina wants exemptions to regulations meant to protect soil, riparian areas and rare species. The company also wants exemptions to rules that safeguard scenic views along the Pacific Crest Trail, Dead Indian Memorial Road, Highway 140 and other areas, according to the Forest Service.