A conversation with Dan Serres of Columbia Riverkeeper
Dan Serres is the Conservation Director with Columbia Riverkeeper, an environmental organization that works to protect the Columbia River, its fish and wildlife, and the people that depend on it. On January 29, 2015 Serres spoke at an informational meeting in Vernonia hosted by Oregon DEQ concerning the Oregon LNG and Oregon Pipeline projects. The projects would transport natural gas in a thirty-six inch pipeline from Canada across Washington and Oregon to be exported from a terminal in Warrenton. The pipeline crosses local timberland and numerous streams and rivers including Rock Creek five miles above the drinking water intake for the City of Vernonia. On February 26 Serres met with local activists in Vernonia during an organizational meeting to discuss the project. Vernonia’s Voice met with Serres prior to that meeting to talk about the Oregon LNG and Oregon Pipeline projects.
Vernonia’s Voice: Can you give us some background and the history of this Oregon LNG project?
Dan Serres: Oregon LNG came to Oregon in 2004. There had been a proposal by Calpine previous to that in Humbolt Bay in California and they were run out by commercial fisherman who didn’t want an LNG terminal that would disrupt commercial fishing there. So they moved very quickly and quietly north and came to the Columbia River. They secured a sublease with the Port of Astoria. At that time they were talking about importing Liquefied Natural Gas, (LNG), and there was no pipeline, just a big terminal plunked down in the middle of Warrenton.
It was very controversial because people felt like the decision was made behind closed doors without much public knowledge. In the meantime, Calpine went bankrupt in 2007 and the project was bought by Leucadia National Corporation, a private equity firm in New York, who now fully own it. They changed the name to Oregon LNG and proposed adding a very large pipeline which would run through Clatsop County, down through Washington and Yamhill Counties, across Marion and Clackamas Counties to Molalla.
That was the import part of the project with big storage tanks in Warrenton and big tankers coming into the Columbia River. At that time the promoters of the project were saying that North America was running out of natural gas and we absolutely need to be importing LNG or natural gas prices are going to spike. That was totally, absolutely wrong. The same people are now trying to sell us the idea that we have so much natural gas that we need to be liquefying it and exporting it all over the world. They made both those arguments within five years with equal passion and conviction.
The import part of the project faced really fierce opposition in Clatsop County and then equally fierce opposition along the pipeline route in communities like Yamhill, Gaston, Forest Grove, and Molalla. Farmers, timberland owners, and fisherman organized and teamed up with conservation groups like us. It was sort of unusual because those groups don’t normally agree on anything, but we were all on the same page. People did an incredible job of creating political will to say no to LNG and defend their properties by really focusing on stopping the terminals and using the absurd idea of running these pipeline projects through farms, through really steep and rugged territory and salmon bearing streams.
Oregon actually did say no to LNG. At that time in 07-08 there was a second competing project called Bradwood by Northwest Natural Gas about twenty-five miles further up the Columbia River. The state of Oregon formally rejected that proposal around 2011.
About that time Oregon LNG made the switch and decided they were going to export LNG. They rerouted the pipeline away from the contentious parts of the Willamette Valley and up through Columbia County and Vernonia, which brings us to today.
Now Oregon LNG is pushing for critical permits from state and federal agencies that they need to build the project and not surprisingly they are getting negative feedback because, after ten years, they have not been able to answer the fundamental questions about how this project would meet Oregon’s laws. The reason they haven’t answered them is because they can’t meet Oregon’s laws.
VV: What has been Columbia Riverkeeper’s involvement in opposing this project?
DS: We got involved in the project in 2005 by looking at both the Oregon LNG and Bradwood import facilities. At that time there were five proposals to import LNG in Oregon. There were two others on the Columbia that never went anywhere, one in Coos Bay and there were other proposals in California. There was a huge coalition of groups that formed to try to stop LNG imports for a number of reasons. Some of the Small Woodlands groups got really organized and said, on property right grounds, this should be denied. The coalition continued to grow, from just the people who were directly impacted by the pipelines and the terminals, to include nearby local neighborhood groups, rate payer groups who said it didn’t make fiscal sense, and others.
Our role was to help them organize, to help inform people and arm this unusual coalition of people with an understanding of the impacts of the project and who makes the decisions, because it’s very confusing. There are about fifteen places where Oregon LNG needs to get critical approval and a “no” at any one of them means the project doesn’t go forward.
We have a long history of working with local activists in Clatsop County where people were really concerned about the impacts on the area, a totally critical area for salmon restoration and recovery. That’s obviously a huge concern for us and it’s also a huge concern up here in the Nehalem Valley. What we try to do is help facilitate and work with different community groups.
You could say that Oregon LNG has already received that “no” answer in Clatsop County where the County Commissioners voted 5-0 against the project. But they don’t like to take “no” for an answer.
VV: How long have you personally been involved with Columbia Riverkeeper?
DS: I’ve been involved with Columbia Riverkeeper in some type of role since 2005 and aware of and working on LNG since 2004. I grew up in Oregon outside Oregon City and had just graduated from graduate school and was living in Grants Pass. It seemed to me that it was going to be an issue that brought people from very different backgrounds – people who were worried about fish habitat, people who were worried about timber values, and people that worried about energy independence. That’s what first drew me into the work and going to these places where people don’t always identify as environmentalists but they care about their neighborhood, they care about their farm, and they care about their rivers and streams, in a very concrete and on-the-ground way.
VV: What are the overall and local concerns about the project?
DS: The big overarching concern is that exporting LNG is a really bad idea for a bunch of different reasons. What this is going to do is dig up fracked gas in North America and ship it overseas to high priced markets, leaving a whole bunch of methane and pollution along the way – for what? For no real benefit for the people who are most impacted by the project in Oregon, by the terminal that would disrupt fishing access and the local economy, and by the pipeline that would cut through private landowners and impact public services in places like Vernonia. It doesn’t add up. It’s a bad deal for Oregon. Even if you’re a big proponent of natural gas, and there are some right here in this area – I know there’s an active gas drilling operation in Mist – the idea of exporting it seems to undercut the idea of energy independence.
At a regional level it’s a decision about industrializing a really critical area of salmon habitat. There have been tens of millions of dollars spent to bring back salmon and keep up the salmon run for sport fisherman, for gill netting and commercial fishing, and for tribal fishing. All of these are important values that the region has prioritized and Oregon LNG absolutely flies in the face of that.
Some of the more local concerns are that it poses a very significant public safety risk and burden on people. In order to keep this project safe there is a fundamental conflict with other existing economic activities in the area of the terminal, namely fishing, crabbing, recreational uses, and tourism. As you move further down the pipeline there’s a fundamental conflict between smaller timberland owners, farmers and fish habitat and all the work that has gone into these watersheds to keep them healthy.
At a very local level, if there’s a problem with the pipeline and gas leaks out and catches fire it’s going to have a big impact on the people who live nearby. The first responders in these rural communities are going to be asked to deal with a very large industrial facility. This pipeline carries non-odorized, high pressure, natural gas methane in huge volumes. To give you a sense of how much product this pipeline carries, this pipeline will move almost twice as much natural gas in a day as the entire state of Oregon moves right now – it’s the state’s entire consumption of natural gas, times two. If you look at other places where there have been incidents or problems – where someone has hit a pipe with a piece of construction equipment, where there’s been land movement, where there’s been erosion or corrosion – all those risks are in the absolute forefront with this proposal because this is some of the most rugged areas in Oregon’s Coast Range.
The pipeline is thirty-six inches and is being built as a Class 1 pipeline which is significant because that is determined by population density and is the lowest classification. It also determines the inspection rate for the pipeline.
VV: What is Columbia Riverkeeper doing to help local citizens with these LNG projects?
DS: The project sort of speaks for itself the way it’s proposed, so right now we’re just trying to get people informed about the basics of what it’s about: a huge gas pipeline, a huge terminal, the idea of exporting natural gas, the huge potential risk to all the streams and rivers that will be crossed by this project and the public safety risk to the people living around it.
People have been asking the right questions. It was brought up over and over at the DEQ meeting here in Vernonia about landslides that we all know about that occur in the area. The pipeline goes right through some of those same areas. It’s really encouraging to see local people getting up to speed quickly in these new neighborhoods that are going to be impacted.
This project has to be proved – there are people who have to make a decision on this, including Governor Kate Brown. She’s heard about this project in the past and is aware of it—this won’t be new to her. The idea that this is still happening is sometimes surprising to people after all the initial controversy around LNG projects in this state.
Wherever people are coming from on this, they need to be aware that their voice can be heard. People in the state of Oregon will be making decisions on this. At the federal level the Federal Regulatory Commission (FRC) generally approves these projects. In cases where LNG terminals have been turned down in the past, they’ve been turned down at the state level. It’s very important that everyone who feels disempowered by something this large realizes that Oregon can say no to this, and Oregon has said no to this before in the very recent past. Oregon turned down the Bradwood project and denied it under the Clean Water Act because it didn’t meet the standards of the state. It posed such a threat to degrading water quality and salmon habitat.
The precedence is there, it’s just a question of whether we can create a platform for all these voices to be heard.
VV: How have local citizens been effective in the past in opposing LNG projects?
DS: People in Forest Grove and Molalla self-organized and got together to talk about the issue and got engaged. What we’re trying to do is get the word out to all the places that would be impacted by the terminal, by the pipeline in Oregon, even by the pipeline in Washington. A lot happens when people have a chance to look at maps, see where the project goes, and talk to other people.
What has been really effective in other communities is people communicating with each other, getting organized and going to their City Councils and asking them to weigh in; going to their elected officials at the State level and making sure their voices are heard. These community groups form and they keep each other informed about upcoming meetings, changes in the project – it’s a way for people to get information that is useful and reliable.
Meetings are often not well noticed. This is just good old fashioned democracy – people getting together when someone is making a decision and packing the hearing and telling them in a respectful and detailed way why Oregon LNG is a bad idea. It’s been happening for ten years and it will keep happening for as long as it needs to happen. And the credit for that goes to the people – the farmers, the fishermen, the forest owners – the people who took it upon themselves to ask, “How is this going to impact my community?”
A local activist group, Vernonia Against LNG, will be hosting an informational meeting Thursday, March 12th, 6:00 PM at the School Commons. Anyone concerned about this issue is encouraged to attend.