by Laurie Dougherty
Six years ago, I retired and moved to Salem, Oregon where my daughter lives. I knew before I got here that there were plans to build coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest to sell Powder River Basin coal in Asia. I knew I had to find a way to fight this. I soon learned there were also several proposals to build oil-by-rail projects and LNG export terminals and pipelines in Oregon and Washington state (and British Columbia too.)
We don’t have coal mines or oil and gas fields here. To the fossil fuel industry our beautiful region is nothing but a transport corridor to get their filthy products to West Coast ports and refineries. The Columbia River and its spectacular Gorge offer an easy rail route through the Cascade range for coal and oil trains, each one over a mile long, with 100 or more cars all carrying one kind of cargo (called unit trains). LNG exports need high capacity pipelines from existing trunk lines out to deep water harbors.
Altogether there have been over two dozen fossil fuel infrastructure proposals in Washington and Oregon. Almost all of them are gone – permits denied, financing deals abandoned, tribal treaty rights upheld. But there are a few still on the table. They’re big with huge climate impacts if they get built, but resistance is relentless and strong.
A few months after moving to Oregon I went to a conference at the University of Oregon in Eugene that included a panel on coal exports. I found an amazing ecosystem of environmental and climate action organizations, frontline communities and Native American tribes, woven into networks and coalitions committed to making sure that “Coal, Oil, & Gas: None Shall Pass.”
That was the slogan for a brilliant demonstration in the summer of 2013 on the Columbia River at the I-5 bridge connecting Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington. With Mt. Hood shimmering in the distance, kayaks and canoes swarmed in the water while hundreds of people lined up on the bridge above. Climbers rappelled down from the bridge flying that message on a banner – “Coal Oil Gas None Shall Pass.” Photographer Adam Elliot’s breathtaking photo of the event is a powerful image of unity and resolve that continues to inspire us.
It’s four years later and the huge oil-by-rail terminal proposed for Vancouver, WA that sparked the event is still not a done deal. The state’s environmental review is due very soon after many hearings flooded with opponents and thousands of comments. Governor Jay Inslee, who claims to be a climate champion, will then make his decision. Just last week a project opponent was elected to the Port Commission and will have the deciding vote when the project lease comes due for its next extension.
Shell Oil Company and its ill-fated Arctic drilling project, brought kayaktivists back on the water in the summer of 2015, first in Seattle where the drill rig went for preparation and supplies, then in Portland where the support vessel Fennica underwent repairs after running aground before reaching the drill site. Not only did kayakers show up to get in Fennica’s way, seven Greenpeace climbers rappelled down from the St. John’s bridge and hung in mid-air over the ship channel for two days with red and yellow banners streaming gloriously in the wind.
For forty hours Shell’s boat could not get through. It took fire department teams and Coast Guard and Sheriff’s boats to clear the way. I was there to support and observe the ShellNo action, watching in awe of the bravery of the people in the water and in the air who faced down that ship. (The photo was taken there. It was my 70th birthday.)
A year later I was arrested with 51 other people, during Break Free Pacific NW. We camped out for two nights and a day on a railroad spur leading to two oil refineries in Anacortes, WA. This was the biggest, but only one of several oil train blockades in Washington state.
The fossil fuel resistance is not only or even mainly carried out in such dramatic actions. It also happens when hundreds of people show up for long tedious hearings over permits and environmental reviews, over and over again at state and federal agencies, port commissions, city councils and land use and planning boards. It happens with hundreds of thousands of comments filed and a million petitions signed. It’s people knocking on doors for key local elections, holding rallies with colorful creative motifs, mobilizing friends and neighbors to protect their communities from this predatory industry. It’s tribes demanding that their treaty rights to use of land and waters be upheld. It’s farmers and ranchers and conservationists and timberland owners incensed that some of their property could be taken by eminent domain for a pipeline right of way. It’s activists passionate about protecting our climate.
Sightline Institute in Seattle, an invaluable research partner, calls this the Thin Green Line – the geography of opposition between coal, oil and gas extraction sites and coveted Asian markets. One industry executive once said ruefully that people think the Pacific NW is where fossil fuel projects go to die. We do our best.
Getting involved with fossil fuel resistance, I met people who had formed 350 chapters in other Oregon cities. I’ve participated in 350.days of action since the beginning (when it was briefly called Step It Up) and helped organize some of them, but never considered myself a leader. But I did have an email list of people in Salem who came to 350 action days and No KXL rallies. I invited them to a meeting in the spring of 2014 and we formed 350 Salem OR.
The biggest fossil fuel infrastructure fight in Oregon right now is the proposed Jordan Cove LNG export terminal in Coos Bay on the Southern Oregon coast and its 230 mile Pacific Connector feeder pipeline. Since Oregon’s last coal-fired power plant is scheduled to close in a few years, if Jordan Cove gets built, the energy-intensive liquefaction facility alone will become the biggest greenhouse gas emitter in the state. This is over and above methane leaks from pipelines and fracking sites in Canada or Colorado and emissions from shipping across the Pacific and final combustion in Asia. And it doesn’t count the cost or danger to impacted communities and existing businesses.
Surprisingly, FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, denied permits for Jordan Cove twice, But the company submitted a new application hoping for a better deal from Trump appointees. Our Governor, Kate Brown, went to Bonn, part of a West Coast delegation affirming the Paris Climate Agreement, Yet she won’t take a position in opposition to Jordan Cove. At least two state agencies have to issue permits before the project can go forward but the Governor claims this is FERC’s issue. The Oregon No LNG coalition, which includes all six 350 chapters in Oregon, is engaged with both federal and state processes. We are not shy about letting the Governor know that protecting Oregon is her responsibility.
When I moved to Oregon, I was angry and felt a kind of grief that this incredibly beautiful region of green mountains and craggy coasts, high desert and fertile valleys, this region with a reputation for innovative environmental policy and progressive people, faces such a terrible onslaught from coal, oil and gas producers. I came here looking for a fight and I found it. We are the Thin Green Line.
Laurie Dougherty is a Co-Coordinator of 350 Salem OR, local affiliate of international climate action organization 350.org.