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Landowners fight proposed natural gas pipeline

The U.S. Department of Energy this week authorized the export of natural gas from the proposed Jordan Cove pipeline and export facility in southwest Oregon.

The export facility north of Coos Bay would become the first export facility for liquefied natural gas on the West Coast of the United States.

Meanwhile, local landowners opposed to the project are fighting it in court — trying to overturn the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s conditional approval of the project that came in March. FERC authorized the project on the condition it receive needed Oregon permits, which it so far has been unable to do due to concerns over environmental damage.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette said the export facility would further position America as a top supplier of natural gas around the world, particularly in the growing markets of Asia.

He said the project supports the Trump Administration’s goal of providing reliable, affordable and cleaner-burning natural gas to American allies around the world.

“As we work to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic, LNG exports are going to be one of the building blocks toward the United States’ economic recovery,” said U.S. Department of Energy Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy Steven Winberg.

Opponents say the pipeline would primarily carry Canadian natural gas, providing little benefit for American producers. Ramping up North American natural gas exports could also cause prices to rise for gas-using consumers and businesses in the United States.

The project proposed by the Canadian company Pembina would cost $10 billion to build, the company has estimated.

During peak construction, the project would create 6,000 jobs and could generate up to $100 million in state and local tax revenue annually, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

But Jackson County resident Deb Evans is among those who oppose the project.

The 3-foot diameter pipeline would carry natural gas for 229 miles across Klamath, Jackson, Douglas and Coos counties to reach the Oregon Coast.

In 2005, Evans and her husband bought timberland in Klamath County as an investment with a dream of building a home. Then flagging appeared on their property, and they learned that a potentially explosive pipeline could be sited underground, with a swathe of their trees cut and kept permanently clear along the pipeline route.

“There’s risk in having a high-pressure pipeline go across timber in a dry climate,” Evans said. “We already have to worry about wildfire and losing that investment.”

While much of America is served safely by underground natural gas pipelines, deadly explosions sometimes do occur, including in neighborhoods.

Over the years the Jordan Cove project has gone through various iterations, changing from an import to an export project. FERC previously denied the project on the grounds the need for the project didn’t outweigh potential damage — but then reversed course and approved the project this year.

Although the project doesn’t have state approval, FERC said Pembina could start eminent domain proceedings against landowners who don’t want their property used. But FERC said land clearing and construction can’t begin unless the project secures all needed permits, including from Oregon.

This spring, landowners, environmental groups, tribes, physicians and others filed lawsuits in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. in an effort to block the decision.

This week, landowners represented by the Niskanen Center filed a motion asking the court to invalidate FERC’s decision. They are also asking for a stay on the approval.

If the court rules in favor of the landowners, Pembina could not start condemnation actions against them.

The landowners’ motion notes a court previously ruled against FERC on another project, saying natural gas exports don’t count when assessing whether a project meets public necessity and public convenience requirements.

“Landowner petitioners have been fighting this project for well over 15 years,” said Megan Gibson, senior staff attorney for the Niskanen Center. “They are now under imminent threat of having their land taken, during a global pandemic, for a natural gas pipeline with no discernible public use or benefit, which is unlikely to ever be built. We sincerely hope that the D.C. Circuit will see FERC’s approval of this project for what it is — a blatant violation of landowners’ statutory and constitutional rights.”

Opponents noted the oil and gas industries have been financially hit by reduced demand during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pembina recently faced layoffs due to the drop-off in demand as the global economy slows.

The company previously offered payments of at least $30,000 to each landowner along the route and said it had secured voluntary agreements for the use of property along at least 77% of the route.

Pembina did not respond to a request for comment about whether it would begin condemnation proceedings against holdout landowners while the case remains under appeal.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

A bulk carrier ship loads wood chips from Roseburg Forestry in Coos Bay.{ } Mail Tribune file photo by Jamie Lusch