Communities in the rural west can stand up to giant outside gas companies, if they work together despite their differences. That’s how the Jordan Cove pipeline project was ultimately killed in Oregon by a coalition of conservative ranchers and farmers, climate activists, native tribal leaders, fishermen and coastal residents.
The victory came last December, when a Canadian energy company called Pembina announced it would halt plans to build a 230-mile pipeline through rural southwest Oregon, crossing more of 400 streams and rivers along the way. The pipeline was to carry fracked gas from the Rocky Mountains to a huge terminal proposed for the coastal town of Coos Bay, where it would be loaded onto ships bound for Asia.
When the Jordan Cove export project was first announced some 15 years ago, the chances of stopping it seemed slim. Supporters included the state’s governor and his two US senators – all Democrats – as well as most of the Republican political establishment.
But community organizers in Coos Bay and beyond haven’t given up.
“The last thing we needed was another giant fossil fuel project and another major fire hazard just to benefit an outside company,” recalls Allie Rosenbluth, director of campaigns for Rogue Climate, a grassroots group in the southern Oregon.
Rogue Climate contacted hundreds of landowners whose property would be affected, while also working with local environmental groups like Rogue Riverkeeper.
They found that many ranchers were unhappy with the company’s threats. If the landowners did not let the pipeline cross their land in return for a one-time payment, they were told, the power of eminent domain would be invoked to impose it on them anyway. Congress granted this power to gas pipelines in 1947.
Over a span of seven years, an unlikely coalition has grown stronger, bringing thousands of residents to public hearings and prompting more than 50,000 people to submit written comments to regulators. A delegation representing all components of the coalition even organized a sit-in in the governor’s office.
Seven rural landowners from across the political spectrum also published a column in the state’s largest newspaper, The Oregonian. It was direct: “We are fed up with the outlandish speculations of these for-profit corporations. We cannot build, we cannot plan, and we cannot sell if we choose because of the threat of eminent domain.
Don Gentry, chairman of the Klamath Tribes, protested that the pipeline would “shade streams and pollute them with sediment, harming fish at the heart of Klamath traditions and way of life.”
Bill McCaffre, a longtime Republican and longtime president of the local Coos Bay Electricians Union, was also publicly at odds with construction union leaders who wanted short-term work for their members.
“Everyone who works in the building and construction trades wants to build things that benefit communities and don’t cause harm,” McCaffre said. “Ever since I was a kid, there have been jobs here in Coos County in fishing, clam digging, and oyster farming. What would happen to these jobs when the bay was disrupted by the construction and operation of this export terminal?
A better strategy for creating good, stable jobs, McCaffre said, would be to invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy development. This sector “creates jobs at a rate 12 times faster than the rest of the American economy”.
Following this broad and vocal resistance, state agencies eventually announced that the pipeline and terminal were ineligible for the necessary permits. This led Pembina to tell federal regulators it was dropping the project.
The coalition did not stop at its victory. Last year, members convinced the Oregon legislature to pass bills to transition the state to 100% clean energy by 2040, provide $50 million for community resilience projects and renewable energy outside of Portland, and earmark $10 million for energy-efficient home repairs for low-income households. The legislature also banned any new natural gas-fired power plants in Oregon.
“Most of us who live in small towns and rural areas all want the same things,” said Hannah Sohl of Rogue Climate. “Good jobs, a healthy climate, communities that work for everyone. We can accomplish a lot when we talk to each other and organize.
Matt Witt is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to stimulating lively conversation about Western issues. He is a writer and photographer in Talent, Ore.