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A protracted battle in Oregon over a proposal to build a 229-mile natural gas pipeline and processing terminal in the southern part of the state is pitting those hungry for economic development against those wary of the project's environmental risks. But as NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker reports, that fight is drawing closer to a conclusion.
Since 2004, there has been a protracted battle underway in Oregon. It's a fight over a liquid natural gas export terminal, and the pipeline that would deliver the gas. Landowners and community members are wary of what they say is a risky proposition. But, as PBS NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker reports, it's a 15-year conflict that is finally inching closer to a conclusion.
This tree right here is a beautiful old oak tree. And that's where the cattle shades.
Sandy and Russ Lyon are the kind of landowners that know every detail of their property.
Since 1992, the California transplants have spent their days stewarding these 306 acres of ranch land in southwest Oregon. They've raised their son here, plus a small number of livestock. And they've worked to restore the salmon habitat in the creek that cuts through their land.
And and the spawning salmon coming up can hide under those logs
The Lyons say they moved to rural Oregon because they wanted to live in nature, away from things.
But in 2005, despite their best efforts, they learned that a bit of the outside world was indeed coming in, or, in their case, coming under their land.
We got a letter in the mail. And with the letter, there was a map showing where it would go.
The letter concerned what is now called the Jordan Cove Energy Project. It's a proposed 229-mile natural gas pipeline that would serve as a connection between existing pipelines in the Rocky Mountains and a liquid natural gas export terminal that would be built on the Oregon coast.
The new pipeline would run right through the Lyon property.
So it would be coming over that ridge up there where you see the tallest trees, down that mountain and it will come in our property right about there and cut down and go through the creek.
Building a pipeline would mean cutting a path 95 feet wide, clearing everything in its way, including the trees. And equipment would be staged on their pasture for up to five years.
The Lyons have resisted each offer to put the pipeline under their land: from the first company in 2005 who offered $4,000 – to the most recent offer of nearly $100,000 from Canadian energy firm, Pembina.
We won't be bought out because we love this land. We love the fish.
And we wouldn't want to live here with the pipeline
The Lyons are one more than 80 private landowners who have said no to the pipeline. But some have said yes. Pembina says it's already secured more than 80 percent of the route.
But it's not just about convincing landowners. This project needs approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the state of Oregon to go forward. It's been a regulatory odyssey that included a federal rejection in 2016, and ongoing wrangling with several state agencies.
Nevertheless, the Jordan Cove Project persists.
The site of the proposed export terminal is 65 miles to the northwest in coastal Coos County. The project's developer, Pembina, declined PBS Newshour Weekend's request for an interview. But some community members see this project as an investment that will transform this rural community.
Why did you become involved with the Jordan Cove project?
One word, jobs. Jobs for, for our workers and also jobs for the community.
Robert Westerman is the business manager of IBEW local 932, a union representing electricians on Oregon's coast. He's been an outspoken supporter of the project since its first iteration more than a decade ago.
It's a game changer for us. It is going to completely change the landscape here for the economy. We don't see projects like this. This is a 10 billion dollar infrastructure project that's come into southern Oregon. It will be the largest of its kind ever.
Pembina estimates that at its peak, Jordan Cove will employ as many as 2,000 union construction workers during the five years it takes to complete the project. And it will then permanently employ about 200 people.
The company has also gotten a tax break from Coos County, but overall, the county's assessor estimates the completed project would still nearly double the area's annual tax base.
Supporters of the project say it's particularly needed in a region that has seen a dramatic decline in one of its major industries: timber. More than half of Oregon's saw mills have closed since the late 80's.
We certainly realize that we're never going to recapture all of the timber jobs that we lost over the last 30 years. This would be one small step in the right direction.
Todd Goergen is the president of the local chamber of commerce and the co-chair of Boost Southern Oregon. It's a nonprofit created to advocate for the project, and it's received financial support from Pembina.
Goergen also owns an RV campground just down the road from where the proposed liquid natural gas terminal would be built.
So your land goes 100 acres back?
We have a hundred acres here from the Transpacific. Our property runs for a mile north.
Goergen's family purchased this plot of land, which sits next to the oregon dunes national recreation area, in 1992.
You're not worried about having a natural gas terminal right there?
Well, we weren't worried about it when there was a big pulp plant right there either.
He says industrial activity has always been a part of life in this region.
We have a working waterfront in a community that historically has been very open to making sure those uses are compatible. We're good neighbors
The site of the proposed terminal is currently vacant.
This is where the slip and the terminal will be.
And then just on the other side is the bay, which then basically the boats can take the gas.
Go directly west, yep. Out to the open ocean and across to Asia.
Next stop, Japan.
This wasn't always the case. The project was initially designed to import natural gas. But after the U.S. fracking boom, it was reconceived as an export facility to supply Asian markets.
But through each iteration, there has been opposition arguing the potential economic benefits have never justified the environmental risks.
And they actually drill underneath the river.
Allie Rosenbluth is an organizer with Rogue Climate, a nonprofit Environmental group in southern Oregon fighting the Jordan Cove project.
The Jordan Cove LNG terminal is in a very populated part of our coast. There would be over ten thousand people in a hazardous burn zone if anything was to go wrong. And we know that we're long overdue for a earthquake and tsunami on the Oregon coast.
The proposed export terminal sits next to what's called the cascadia subduction zone, an area that scientists say is at risk of a major earthquake in the next 50 years.
But it's not just the location of the terminal that concerns Rosenbluth: she objects to the entire project.
Coos Bay will need to be dredged to make room for the large transport ships, possibly disrupting fisheries. The pipeline would travel under hundreds of waterways and Rosenbluth worries chemicals used during drilling might leak into the rivers
And she points to a 2014 incident in neighboring Washington where a natural gas plant exploded, injuring five workers and forcing hundreds to evacuate.
But the opposition isn't focused entirely on the environment.
This is another trauma. We're not as important as a Canadian, fossil fuel company or others that are partners with them.
Don Gentry is the chairman of the Klamath Tribes. He's opposed to the project for all the same environmental reasons as Rosenbluth. But the pipeline would also travel through the tribes' ancestral lands, which include the Klamath river.
We've been here for over 14,000 years. So and that's why this is a problem. You know, our people lived along these rivers and lakes. The risk of disturbing sensitive cultural sites and human remains is significant.
But perhaps more than any other issue, the fact that Jordan Cove is a fossil fuel project drives opponents like Rosenbluth. She says this is exactly the wrong type of investment to be making as the world tries to address climate change.
If we look at the methane leakage that happens across a pipeline route, if we look at how much methane is emitted when that gas is burned, this project is, and all fracked gas projects are not good for the climate. Which is why we need local officials to be pushing for jobs in clean energy and not fracked gas.
Is it worth it to fight this long for a fuel that will most likely not be used to such a degree in the future?
Renewable energy, I believe, is what's going to save us in the future. And we are, the IBEW is installing solar panels across this country as we speak. We're building windmills. But it's a drop in the bucket compared to just our growth of the need for power. It's not something that we can just snap our fingers and make happen overnight.
Westerman also points out that the company says the export terminal will be built to resist a 9.0 Magnitude earthquake and raised more than 40 feet above sea level to withstand a tsunami.
There's been a lot of fear mongering about the project, whether it be about the loss of habitat or that we have, will now have a nuclear bomb waiting to explode. Those are fairly false arguments. It's not that. It is an industrial facility. We are more than capable of building it safely and operating it safely
But even advocates like Westerman acknowledge that balancing the interests of property owners isn't easy, especially if land ends up being taken through eminent domain.
What's your conversation like with landowners who may own land, that the pipe may run through?
That's a difficult conversation. I don't think anybody is out there advocating for eminent domain and the closure of taking people's property away from them. To that one homeowner, that absolutely does not want it. That may end up having it anyway, that is that's a shame
Russ and Sandy Lyon think an eminent domain fight is where this is heading.
One thing is how can it happen? Why do you have no say in it? That you 'll actually do eminent domain for a foreign company to put something just for their profit across land and do so much destruction along the way.
How do you respond to the proponents of the project who acknowledge that eminent domain questions are challenging, they still believe that there is a greater economic benefit?
I think they've been sold a bill of goods.The people here are told that it'll be local jobs and we doubt that that's true. But even if it were true, it would be a temporary short term jobs and at what risk?
While the Lyons have fought the pipeline from the beginning,they have recently intensified their resistance.
If you choose to remain in this building you will be trespassing.
Last November, Sandy Lyon was among 21 people arrested after a sit-in at Oregon Gov. Kate Brown's office. The governor has pledged to remain neutral while the regulatory process plays out.
I am angry. I put it down, if I let it out, I'll start to cry because I'm so passionate about this place and having it for our son and grandchildren. You know, this has been hanging over us so long and we fight it every day and it gets really old and it's stressful. And you feel you can't do anything. There's nothing we can do. So you feel helpless.
On Thursday, federal regulators will announce whether the Jordan Cove project meets federal guidelines. But even after that, the project's developer will still need to get several state permits. And if that happens, opponents say they will continue their fight, in court.
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Christopher Booker is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend covering music, culture, our changing economy and news of the cool and weird. He also teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, following his work with Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in Chicago and Doha, Qatar.
Connie Kargbo has been working in the media field since 2007 producing content for television, radio, and the web. As a field producer at PBS NewsHour Weekend, she is involved in all aspects of the news production process from pitching story ideas to organizing field shoots to scripting feature pieces. Before joining the weekend edition of PBS Newshour, Connie was a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand where she trained Thai English teachers.
Sam Weber has covered everything from living on minimum wage to consumer finance as a shooter/producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend. Prior joining NH Weekend, he previously worked for Need to Know on PBS and in public radio. He’s an avid cyclist and Chicago Bulls fan.
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