Federal Regulators Greenlight Expansion of Northwest Gas Pipeline Despite Public Opposition

Federal Regulators Greenlight Expansion of Northwest Gas Pipeline Despite Public Opposition

A picture of the Gas Transmission Northwest Express (GTN Express) pipeline from the border between Idaho and Canada to the southern part of Oregon. (Thanks to TC Energy)

Federal officials have given the go-ahead for building to start on an expansion of a gas pipeline that goes from Washington State to northern California through Oregon, a part of Idaho, and Washington.

The Canadian company TC Energy owns the pipeline. On Wednesday, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave the go-ahead for construction to begin. This came after Tuesday’s denial of requests from environmentalists and attorneys general in Oregon and Washington to reevaluate its approval of the Northwest XPress expansion project.

Already, every day, billions of cubic feet of gas are sent from Canada through the 1,400-mile pipeline to utilities that serve natural gas users in the Northwest and California. In 2021, TC Energy asked the Federal Energy Commission to let it add millions of cubic feet of gas from fracking to the pipeline every day in order to make it bigger. Representatives from the company told the commission and the Capital Chronicle that they need to make more space to meet demand.

People who are against the pipeline say that the company hasn’t shown a need for an expansion in a world that is becoming more electrified and where green energy sources are getting cheaper and easier to find. Natural gas is a major cause of climate change, and environmentalists are also against fracking, which includes putting dangerous chemicals into the ground.

Resistance in the Northwest

Green groups, the governors of Oregon and Washington, the U.S. senators for those states, and the attorneys general of Oregon, Washington, and California are all against the idea. They have been asking the government energy agency not to let the project go forward for more than a year. They’ve said that increasing the pipeline’s capacity goes against their goal of lowering greenhouse gas emissions and that the company will always charge natural gas users in the region for the extra costs.

Customers already have to pay a lot more for natural gas than they did even three or four years ago. The Public Utilities Commission of Oregon has been asked by all three natural gas companies to raise their rates this year. The Citizens’ Utilities Board, which keeps an eye on utilities, says that rates for residential users of NW Natural, the state’s biggest natural gas company, have gone up by an average of 50% since 2020.

When asked for comment, the offices of Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and Gov. Tina Kotek did not reply right away.

Methane, which makes up most of natural gas, is a strong greenhouse gas that is a major cause of global warming. A joint filing against the pipeline sent to the federal commission in August 2022 by Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, and California Attorney General Rob Bonta says that the expansion of the GTN Xpress would release an extra 3.47 million metric tons of carbon dioxide over the next 30 years. Oregon’s Climate Protection Program says that by 2050, greenhouse gas pollution must drop by 90%. That drop will have to come from natural gas at least 26% of the time. A law passed in Washington in 2020 says that greenhouse gas pollution must be cut by 95% by 2050.

Still, in October, the commission gave its okay.

Not agreeing with the group

Tuesday, the decision not to hold a second hearing on the pipeline project approval was not unanimous. Allison Clements, one of the three commission members who spoke out against the decision, said that she mostly agreed with the states that TC Energy had not shown enough demand and that the expansion would hurt the states’ laws that require gas companies to lower their greenhouse gas emissions.

Because FERC didn’t decide to deny the petitions within 30 days of its October approval, the petitions are now in federal court. There, the attorneys general of the states and the lawyers for the Oregon nonprofits Columbia Riverkeeper and Rogue Climate will try to get a hearing before a federal Court of Appeals. There, a judge could decide to side with the groups and the states.

A lawyer for Columbia Riverkeeper named Audrey Leonard told the Capital Chronicle, “This is the first time in court we would basically be arguing that FERC has to look at state climate laws when it looks at whether a project sits in the public convenience and necessity.”

Even though TC Energy is being sued, that won’t stop them from building now that the Federal Energy Commission has given their permission.

Some people say that the federal commission has a habit of quickly approving pipeline projects.

Alison Gocke, a professor of law at the University of Virginia School of Law, recently looked back at the commission’s most important decisions about pipelines. She found that in the last 20 years, commissioners agreed to 423 of the 425 planned pipeline projects.

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