Oregon environmental authorities have denied a permit for the the Jordan Cove natural gas export project, citing concerns about water pollution and damage to waterways. The company behind it can appeal or reapply. But this latest hurdle could block what looked like it might be the first West Coast export facility for liquefied natural gas – a form of the fuel that has been cooled to very low temperatures for easier storage and shipping.
This dispute pits federal authorities against local and state governments. It’s also part of a larger and long-running battle over fossil fuel shipments to foreign countries that stretches up the entire American West Coast.
We are sociologists who have studied how people respond to news about plans for big energy facilities in their communities. With President Donald Trump pushing hard for more fossil fuel production and exports, we believe it could get significantly harder for local communities to have a say in these important decisions.
Access to Asia
Oil and gas exports have dramatically increased nationwide over the past decade, ever since technological advances turned the U.S. from a top importer of these fuels to a growing exporter.
Energy companies have sought more access to West Coast ports for decades for routes to Asia and Australia. The region’s deep-water ports, railroad and pipeline networks, and proximity to some of the nation’s most productive oil, gas and coal fields make it particularly attractive for export terminals.
In some cases, exporting through the West Coast is the only economically viable option, as longer overland transportation routes would be too costly. Moreover, shorter trips by sea to reach China and other growing Asian markets cut costs.
Yet Western ports do not export as much crude oil as other American coastal areas.
The lack of liquefied natural gas export facilities along the West Coast isn’t due to the industry not trying. Every single export terminal energy companies have proposed has faced significant public opposition that made securing permits hard if not impossible.
Likewise, relatively small volumes of coal are being shipped abroad from ports on the West Coast despite efforts to build new export terminals there.
With his “energy dominance” policy, Trump has emphasized expanding production and export of fossil fuels and weakening environmental regulations – including those that address climate change.
His administration is siding with energy companies and landlocked states like Wyoming and Colorado angling to ship coal, oil and natural gas mined and drilled within their borders to lucrative and growing Asian markets. Trump issued an April 2019 executive order that’s intended to make it harder for states to block big energy projects by using authority they’ve had since 1972 under the Clean Water Act.
At the same time, many local and state governments on the West Coast are on board with demands made by environmental activists for renewable energy development and advocates for more local control over development.
Local supporters of fossil fuel exports point to the positive local effects these facilities can have. Labor unions, county governments, business councils and ports frequently argue that bolstering fossil fuel exports would create jobs, entice investment and increase the tax base.
Opponents argue that transporting, storing, handling and shipping fossil fuels – via railroads, pipelines and ships – endangers nearby communities and contributes to climate change.
They point to oil train derailments, the public health perils of increased diesel fumes and coal dust, and pipeline explosions and leaks. They also highlight the climate implications of shipping fossil fuels abroad that may affect the carbon footprints of other countries, where the fuel would be burned.