Oregon port vote is latest local action on fossil fuels

Residents of a coastal community in Oregon are considering whether to try to derail a fossil fuel export project in their rural county, a decision that could put them at odds with the Trump administration.

The ballot measure before Coos County voters Tuesday would block the $7.5 billion Jordan Cove Energy Project, a proposed liquefied natural gas port that would be the first of its kind on the U.S. West Coast.

The vote comes weeks after a Trump adviser said the administration would approve the project. Federal regulators denied a permit for the export terminal and pipeline under President Barack Obama.

In recent years, American Indian tribes and environmentalists have successfully fought a number of fossil fuel export projects in the Pacific Northwest, and pushed for local regulations to prevent new projects.

As President Donald Trump aggressively pushes fossil fuel exploration, opponents say they're more focused than ever on actions at the state and local level to stop the Northwest from becoming a gateway for exporting the nation's fossil fuels.

"We've all been waiting nervously for the Trump administration to dial up the intensity," said Eric de Place with Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based environmental research group.

Since 2010, at least 20 projects have been proposed in Oregon and Washington to handle and move coal, crude oil, methanol, propane or liquefied natural gas, but only a few have come to fruition.

"Almost all the victories happened at the state or local level," de Place said.

Other examples of local pushback include:

— The city of Portland, Oregon, in December banned new bulk fossil fuel storage terminals within city limits. The ban was considered the first of its kind for the range of products it sought to prohibit. A coalition of business, labor and oil industry groups is appealing it before a state board.

— Whatcom County in northwest Washington this year extended a moratorium on new shipments of refined fossil fuel as it considers other possible land-use code changes.

— Two other cities in Washington — where major crude oil terminals have been proposed — banned new crude oil storage facilities. The Vancouver ban doesn't apply to a massive proposed oil terminal there that would be the largest in the United States.

Mary Geddry, who helped petition to put the latest ballot measure before Coos County's 41,000 voters, said opponents needed to try something new.

"We just don't want to see Coos Bay turned into the toxic armpit of Oregon," she said. "By creating a bill of rights, then we can defend it by saying that project, that activity violates our fundamental rights."

The measure would allow the transportation of fossil fuels within the county only if they're intended for local use. It also would set up a bill of rights outlining the community's right to a "sustainable energy future."

Critics say the measure is unconstitutional and taxpayers will be forced to needlessly defend it.

It's unclear if the measure would hold up in court. Local and state regulations are subject to legal challenge because the federal government's authority to regulate interstate commerce can supersede rules enacted at a lower level.

The Jordan Cove Energy Project has donated nearly all of the $573,000 raised so far to oppose the measure, campaign records show. Supporters have raised nearly $13,000.

Project spokesman Michael Hinrichs said he's hopeful the ballot measure will be struck down. Proponents say the project will create jobs and generate millions in tax revenues in rural Oregon.

In March 2016, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission denied the Jordan Cove LNG project and a 232-mile (373-kilometer) pipeline that would carry natural gas to the Oregon coast.

FERC said demand was lacking, and negative impacts on landowners outweighed the public benefits. The agency also denied the project's request for a rehearing in December.

But the company refiled, and FERC in February cleared the way for developers to resubmit their application.

Gary Cohn, who directs the White House National Economic Council, said last month that the United States could be and should be the largest exporter of LNG in the world. "The first thing we're going to do is we're going to permit an LNG export facility in the Northwest," he said.

Hinrichs said support from the White House for credible energy projects like Jordan Cove is refreshing and reinforces the owners' confidence in its project. Earlier this month, Pembina Pipeline Corp. announced it would buy owner Veresen Inc. and said the company "will continue to build upon the momentum" of the Jordan Cove project.

But Brett VandenHeuvel, whose Columbia Riverkeeper group has challenged several fossil fuel projects, said it's disappointing that a project "that has been rejected multiple times keeps getting new life."

Across the Northwest, those opposing fossil fuel export projects have staged elaborate protests, packed meeting rooms and successfully sued to block efforts before city administrators and in state courts.

"The fact that none of these large projects have been constructed is really a testament to people standing up to protect what they love," VandenHeuvel added. "These are very local issues that have huge national and international implications."