A green line of governors: Can Inslee, Kitzhaber stop energy exports?
by Floyd McKay
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber during a 2011 press conference to discuss plans for a new bridge across the Columbia River. Credit: Oregon Department of Transportation/Flickr
Elections have consequences, it is often said, and the elections of 2010 and 2012 brought to the West Coast a solid green line of governors: John Kitzhaber in Oregon, Jerry Brown in California and Jay Inslee in Washington. Climate change is under attack in all three states, and rhetoric is building in the Northwest.
Conservation leaders are ecstatic about recent climate-change statements from Washington’s Inslee and Oregon’s Kitzhaber. They come as the region is targeted by Big Energy, which is seeking a pathway to Asia, a modern Silk Road carried on rails and ships.
Coal knocked first, in 2010, with proposals for huge export terminals at Cherry Point north of Bellingham and at Longview, plus a smaller Columbia River lash-up of plans involving trains, barges and ships. This year, crude-oil trains from North Dakota’s bottomless Bakken oil field began making their way westward in significant numbers — the crude is not bound for Asia, but headed for West Coast refineries. Liquefied natural gas and liquefied petroleum gas, which would be aimed at the export market, don’t want to be left behind; the list is long and diverse.
For climate-change warriors, coal is the biggest and most-obvious target — climate scientists are united in belief that burning coal is the major villain in climate change. Oil and gas are also fossil fuels, but the argument there carries somewhat less weight on climate change. However, nasty fires and explosions from oil-train derailments raise lethal concerns, and governors are among those listening. Another fiery explosion of an oil train rocked Lynchburg, Virginia, causing the evacuation of more than 300 people from the city center on Wednesday; there were no injuries, but 15 cars were derailed and three erupted into fire, according to Reuters.
Kitzhaber, a Democrat seeking an unprecedented fourth term, has targeted coal for years, but on April 19 he delivered an imperative: “It is time to once and for all to say NO to coal exports from the Pacific Northwest. It is time to say YES to national and state energy policies that will transform our economy and our communities into a future that can sustain the next generation.” The capitalization is in his official text; Kitzhaber wants his message heard, presumably including by state agencies looking at Ambre Energy’s plans to export 8 million tons of coal a year through the Columbia River Gorge.
Ambre’s plan is at a delicate point. it got off to a running start in 2011 when the Port of Morrow quickly approved a lease of industrial land on the Oregon shore for a coal stockpile. The coal would arrive by rail for storage onshore and then be barged downstream through three locks to St. Helens, below Portland, for transfer to ocean ships bound for Asia. The ensuing three years, however, have been a tangle of applications, delays and requests for more information on the part of two of Kitzhaber’s agencies: Environmental Quality (DEQ) and State Lands. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which must issue permits as well, has taken a passive role; state agencies have not.
Kitzhaber told his Department of State Lands (DSL) to decide by May 31 on permits for removal and fill on state shore lands at the Morrow site. He didn’t tell the agency what to rule. The governor “has given us no instructions,” his newly appointed DSL director says, but Mary Abrams knows, of course, of Kitzhaber’s anti-coal views, along with everyone else in state government. Her department has jurisdiction over fill-removal permits. The buck stops there — or at least until a rejected party appeals to a judge.
Oregon’s law also gives a role — dating to the 1859 Constitution — for the State Land Board, a venerable and once-prominent body made up of the governor, secretary of state and treasurer, currently all elected Democrats. They decide on leases or sale of state lands — but not on removal or fill permits. The line is drawn between Board and Department. But the Land Board has listened to activists who have poured into meetings and voiced their opposition. Abrams, a Ph.D. scientist and former Peace Corps director in Africa, was hired by the Board last October to head the DSL.
Ambre, which also wants to build the much-larger Millennium Bulk Terminal at Longview, has been through seven delays on its Oregon permits with DSL or Environmental Quality. It needs permits both at Morrow and at the downstream end of the project, St. Helens. The May 31 deadline ordered by Kitzhaber applies only to Morrow; the process at St. Helens is still formative. Meanwhile, DEQ staff is working through a 1,700-page application for a water-quality certificate; public comments will open later this month but no decision is expected until fall.
The Oregon project has been targeted by anti-coal forces for the past several weeks, including a prominently placed billboard urging opponents to “Tell Gov. Kitzhaber: Protect Oregon Families. Stop Coal Exports.” Cesia Kearns, the Sierra Club’s anti-coal representative in Oregon, notes Kitzhaber’s views are well known, but “we never want to take anyone for granted,” adding that Kitzhaber and Inslee deserve credit for the broad scope of reviews that export terminals are facing in both states. “They are the leaders of the states; they have the power to set expectations.”
This prominent billboard evokes a classic Northwest scene, a Columbia Gorge surfer and a barge. Photo by Paul K. Anderson, Chuckanut Conservancy.
Inslee made his political reputation in Congress as a “climate hawk,” but has been limited in the Legislature, primarily by the Republican-led coalition that controls the Senate. This week’s announcement of a special task force on climate change and other state actions was Inslee’s response to the legislative deadlock. Inslee’s task force leans toward environmental interests; in appointing his own committee he is able to avoid the rigid partisan split that characterized a legislative panel appointed in 2013.
The most-prominent Republican on that 2013 panel, Sen. Doug Ericksen of Ferndale, whose district includes Cherry Point refineries and the proposed coal-export terminal, accused the governor of slanting the committee to favor his views, which Ericksen said endangers jobs. Coincidentally, Ericksen got a prominent Democratic opponent Wednesday, as former Whatcom County councilman Seth Fleetwood announced he would run against Ericksen. Fleetwood has also served on the Bellingham City Council.
Inslee, like Kitzhaber, is constrained from directly influencing decisions on coal terminals at Longview and Cherry Point, both of which are undergoing a lengthy environmental review. But his environmental views are well known among regulators. He does have, however, a direct role in the largest of the oil-export proposals, the giant Tesoro-Savage terminal proposed at Vancouver on the Columbia River. It would accept 360,000 barrels of crude per day, requiring 10 long unit trains (full and empty) daily. The crude would be shipped or barged to West Coast refineries; legally, it cannot be exported directly to Asia.
Large energy facilities such as Tesoro-Savage must go before the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC), made up of state officials and chaired by an attorney appointed by Inslee. EFSEC’s recommendation — after a lengthy review similar to that of the coal-export terminals — goes to the governor, who casts the final vote. The agency was created in the 1970s during the heyday of nuclear plants and over the years has approved 10 of the 11 projects put before it. Only five are actually in operation and the board hasn’t had a case since 2009. Some 31,000 comments on Tesoro-Savage were received during an EFSEC public process in December. Inslee may be able to make a decision before his term expires in 2017.
Oregon has no equivalent of EFSEC, but Kitzhaber is unlikely to take his foot off the climate-protection pedal as he moves through his re-election campaign. In his long public career, his passions have always been the environment and health care; he is a physician and an avid fisherman and outdoorsman. His likely Republican opponent, Rep. Dennis Richardson of southern Oregon, is a hardline conservative on most issues.
Oregon's statewide officials are limited to two terms, but can sit out a term and run again; Kitzhaber served from 1995 to 2002, sat out the two terms of Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski and won office again in 2010.
Barring a genuine upset in Oregon, Kitzhaber and Inslee will be around for at least two years, during which some but not all of the export terminals will be approved or rejected. Other actors — county officials, the Corps of Engineers, Native American tribes and the commodities markets — will also play significant roles.
Activists do not intend to abandon the field, and the new concerns about the safety of transporting fossil fuels by rail serve to keep their ranks active. Supporters of the terminals worry about that; in April a Millennium official told a Montana coal forum that the campaign needs “lots and lots of ground-level organizing. And I’ll tell you, the opposition is better at it than we are,” Wendy Hutchinson said.
Montana cowboy boots on the ground, so to speak, haven’t been prominent in the region. Gov. Kitzhaber, however, wears cowboy boots daily, and they are weathered on the ground.
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