On a rainy November afternoon, about 20 Northern Californians joined a 200-person rally outside the Oregon capitol in Salem. They had assembled partly in support of the struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) in North Dakota.
In the weeks prior, police on the northern Great Plains had inflicted beatings on anti-DAPL protesters, and shot hundreds with concussion grenades and rubber bullets. At this Salem demonstration, the main focus was an infrastructure project similar to the DAPL, but much closer to home.
Spurred by the newfound ability to extract vast shale deposits from the Rocky Mountains’ western slopes via hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”), a Canadian oil and gas company named Veresen has proposed to ship natural gas from the Rockies west to Asian markets via a newly constructed liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal in Coos Bay, Oregon, where gas would be chilled and liquefied for easier and cheaper storage and transport. Known as the Jordan Cove Energy Project, it would be the first Pacific Coast LNG terminal.
The 233-mile Pacific Connector Gas Pipeline would originate at a natural gas transport hub near Malin, Oregon, and snake beneath five major rivers on its way to Coos Bay. Among them is the mighty Klamath, which rises in southern Oregon and meets the ocean roughly 240 miles away, at the Humboldt County line.
At the Salem rally, indigenous people from the Klamath Basin talked about building a stronger interstate alliance against the project. “We gotta help our neighbors, the Oregonians!” a Hoopa Valley tribal member who identified herself as Missy and lives along the Klamath River in California said into a bullhorn. “They may not know they need our help. But they need our help!”
The nationwide boom in horizontal fracking has fostered proposals to push oil and natural gas out to coastal ports through newly constructed pipelines, but resistance to these plans is also increasing, in part because thousands of people who visited Standing Rock last fall returned home and took up local fights.
In 2016, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) twice rejected Veresen’s application to build the Jordan Cove Energy Project. Leaders of the President Donald Trump administration have vowed to see the project through. At a presentation to the Institute of International Finance forum in Washington on April 20, Gary Cohn, director of the White House National Economic Council (and former Goldman Sachs president), vowed that Trump will step up approvals for LNG export terminals in the name of boosting the economy and specifically referenced Jordan Cove.
California has a critical link to the Jordan Cove project: the 680-mile Ruby Pipeline, completed in 2011, which delivers the natural gas from the Rocky Mountain gas fields to Oregon. Northern California’s main electricity supplier, PG&E, is one of three companies that helped build the pipeline and remains a part owner. PG&E’s network of pipelines delivers Ruby Pipeline gas to the Golden State.
The Pacific Connector Gas Pipeline would tie into the Ruby Pipeline, and the Jordan Cove Energy Project could not be built without it.
Opponents of the Jordan Cove project are mounting pressure on Oregon’s elected officials to stop the project, but even the state’s Democratic Party leaders have either embraced the project or stood aside. So far, a combination of grassroots opposition—some of it from California tribes—and questionable economics have delayed the project. Now many opponents are talking about possibly creating a massive direct action civil disobedience campaign.
Perry Chocktoot, a tribal council member of the Klamath Tribes in Chiloquin, Oregon, says that indigenous people throughout the region will increasingly assert themselves in the struggle going forward. “If this thing gets approved,” he says, “we’re going to call tribes from all over the U.S., Mexico and Canada, to ask for solidarity.”
Long Time Coming
The struggle over Jordan Cove began more than a decade ago. FERC first considered the project in 2007. Back then, Veresen proposed it as an import project to funnel gas shipped from Russia or the Middle East to consumers on the West Coast, especially California.
In 2009, FERC issued a permit, but vacated the decision in 2012 as import prospects sank. Then the meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima power plant created a different opportunity. After the disaster, Japan and other Asia Pacific countries began phasing out nuclear power and replacing it with LNG. In 2013, Veresen submitted an application that re-envisioned the Jordan Cove terminal, this time for the opposite scenario—a project for exports, one that could ship 1 billion cubic feet of gas a day. That’s enough to meet 8 percent of Japan’s current demand.
FERC denied the application last year, noting that the company failed to prove that adequate demand for its product exists in Asia and also citing “significant opposition from directly-impacted landowners.”
In September, Trump criticized the Jordan Cove project on the campaign trail. In February, Trump appointed Veresen CEO Don Althoff as a member of his “infrastructure team” that’s developing recommendations to move major building projects more quickly through regulatory reviews. He’s nominating three new members to the five-member FERC, including a Republican Pennsylvania public utilities commissioner who’s stated that people opposing pipeline projects are engaging in “jihad.”
For most of the past decade, landowners along the pipeline right-of-way have been the backbone of an opposition movement to it.
“This company, Veresen, has no concept of what the land means to us,” says Bill Gow, a reluctant Donald Trump supporter who owns a 2,500-acre ranch in Myrtle Creek, Oregon. “We didn’t choose to live in these places for the money, but that’s all the company cares about.”
Opponents say the project would wreak economic devastation on those along the pipeline route. Moreover, the Jordan Cove terminal would be in a region vulnerable to tsunamis, earthquakes and wildfires. It would clear cut old-growth forests and increase greenhouse gases too, once shipping begins.
Supporters see only opportunity. In a shocking announcement last July, the U.S. Geological Service deemed the western Colorado gas basin to have the second largest reserve of recoverable natural gas in the United States, thrilling the Columbine State’s political and business leaders, who are increasingly clamoring for the Jordan Cove project’s approval.
If built, the project would pull 438 billion cubic feet of natural gas per year out of the ground—almost twice the amount Oregon as a whole consumed in 2015. Construction unions wield enormous power in Oregon, and they highlight that the project would bring about 150 permanent jobs to the economically stagnant Coos Bay region, plus an estimated 930 jobs during its four-year construction phase.
“There are thousands of qualified pipefitters, electricians, laborers, sheet metal workers, ironworkers and boilermakers across Oregon that will benefit from this work, receiving good wages with benefits for three years of construction,” says John Mohlis, Oregon State Building and Construction Trades Council executive secretary.
The port of Coos Bay was among the world’s largest shipping areas for lumber in the 1970s and ’80s. Jody McCaffree is a landowner outside of Coos Bay. He sees the targeting of this economically depressed area as deliberate—that the Jordan Cove consortium chose Coos Bay because residents in the pipeline route have fewer resources to oppose such a project than in places like the San Francisco Bay Area, which has larger ports, but also has big environmental groups “to fight destructive projects like this.”
Most of Oregon’s elected leaders—including most Democratic Party officials, many of whom support measures to reduce greenhouse gas pollution in other contexts—support the pipeline on economic grounds.
Even Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, who co-sponsored a bill earlier this year to eliminate 100 percent of U.S. fossil fuel consumption by the year 2050, has tepidly supported the Jordan Cove proposal.
“It’s incredibly frustrating for communities that are most impacted by this pipeline to see our state government saying they are ready to take action on climate change, but not taking a stand on what could be the largest source of climate pollution in the state,” says Hannah Sohl, executive director of the Medford-based group Rogue Climate, a leading voice of opposition to the Jordan Cove project.
The West Coast has emerged as one of the world’s most significant climate-change battlegrounds. In recent years, California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia have faced a spate of new fossil-fuel infrastructure projects, but grassroots opposition has helped defeat most of them.
And as with struggles over the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, indigenous people will make their voices heard. The Karuk, Yurok and Klamath tribes have all passed resolutions opposing the project, arguing that it threatens cultural resources, traditional tribal territories and burial grounds. Numerous members of other tribes have also come forward to oppose it.
In California, few groups have defended water resources as strongly as Klamath Basin tribes—for whom the river’s storied fisheries form a basis of their survival as distinct cultures. Many have fought for years to remove four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River. They have expressed their concerns about the potential for damage to the river during the pipeline construction process, as well as from potential spills.
Sammy Gensaw, a 22-year-old Yurok fisherman from Klamath Glen, California, says indigenous people have developed long-term resilience that is now lending itself to humanity’s struggle against the global climate crisis. “The first fight of my ancestors was to have blood flow through their veins and air in their lungs, because at one point, the U.S. government deemed it a crime to be native and punishment was death,” Gensaw says. “So my people know what it is to stand up for our very survival.”
Eric de Place, director of the Seattle-based Sightline Institute, a climate-change think tank, says “the Jordan Cove project is far from a slam dunk” for Veresen. That’s particularly the case, he notes, because it’s competing for markets and investors with the swarm of British Columbia LNG export proposals, which are competing against it in a finite global market for LNG products.
Still, the Trump administration’s loud support for the project made Veresen increasingly optimistic about the project’s chances. On Dec. 9, hours after FERC denied Veresen’s application to build the project, company lobbyist Ray Bucheger wrote a conciliatory email to three Colorado-based oil and gas industry executives with a stake in the project, which were obtained for this story through a records request.
“We are currently evaluating our options,” Bucheger stated, “but I will say that we need Mr. Trump and his team now more than ever.”