Industry-Funded Regulatory Agency Set to Vote on Approving Gas Pipeline and Terminal in Earthquake Zone

Policy advisor Ted Gleichman says the billions spent on the Pacific Connector Gas Pipeline and Jordan Cove Energy Project in Oregon should be used for creating jobs in renewables instead of a project that will worsen climate-related disasters

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Story Transcript

KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Kim Brown in Baltimore.

Not only have the much-talked-about Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines been put back on the table by the new administration, but also the Pacific Connector Gas Pipeline through Oregon. The Oregon pipeline would carry fracked gas from Canada and the Rocky Mountain states to a massive new industrial export terminal on Oregon’s coast in the town of Coos Bay, called the Jordan Cove Energy Project, where it would be cooled to minus 261 degrees, becoming LNG — liquefied natural gas — for tanker shipment to Asia.

To talk more about the project and LNG’s disastrous effects on the atmosphere and the environment and the powerful government agency -– the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission which regulates natural gas pipelines –- we’re joined by Ted Gleichman, who serves as the policy advisor to the Climate Justice Program at the Center for Sustainable Economy. And he is also been arrested twice for civil disobedience at the White House against the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Ted has been working since 2008 to stop massive liquefied natural gas export pipelines and terminals from being built in Oregon. He is one of the key leaders of the state-wide coalition guiding the fight against fracked gas export, and Ted is joining us today from Portland. Ted, good day. Thanks for joining us here on The Real News.

TED GLEICHMAN: It’s a pleasure. Thank you.

KIM BROWN: Ted, tell us a bit about liquefied natural gas or LNG. Where does it come from, and what are the main concerns surrounding it?

TED GLEICHMAN: Liquefied natural gas is the biggest piece of the United States energy program that most people know almost nothing about. It is all fracked gas, like all natural gas that’s being used now, that is being either shipped to the coasts for export, or put into smaller-scale facilities that are just being built around the country now for local use and for utility management of their gas plants. So it is a massive, massive program at this point — hundreds of billions of dollars.

But the U.S. uses about 75 billion cubic feet of gas every day. The liquefied natural gas export program that the industry is trying to put together and is well along — mostly on the Gulf Coast, but with an effort aimed at the west coast, as well — is 50 billion cubic feet per day plus two-thirds of the total gas use of the U.S., they want to export — both to raise prices, because they want the money — and to be able to increase the amount of fracking that is going on throughout the United States where there are these tight shale bed formations that we’re getting fracked gas out of.

KIM BROWN: Ted, talk to us about the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, the F-E-R-C. It’s not a regulator that we hear a lot about.

TED GLEICHMAN: FERC has operated in the shadows for a long time, and it has regulatory responsibility as an independent agency, part of, but not subject directly to, the Department of Energy. Five commissioners appointed by the President, approved by the U.S. Senate, constitute the FERC Commission, and it has responsibilities on electricity, hydro-electric power, natural gas and oil, but especially important now with what the industry likes to call “the shale gas revolution,” especially now with natural gas.

They are required, under federal law, to approve all new natural gas pipelines, of which there are dozens and dozens throughout the country, and any LNG export facility.

So it’s really vital that they operate in the public interest, which is a little piece of what they’re supposed to do. The problem is, they are 100% funded by the industry that they are supposed to regulate.

They have a zero budget status within the federal budget process. And that is really an important aspect of what happens to the folks in the agency, many of whom, of course, are good people trying to do the right thing. But they know that the people that they are regulating are also the people who are paying their salaries. Every year, they charge back all of their costs to the industry in proportion to what they’ve done for the industry. It’s not a formula for good government.

KIM BROWN: Wait a minute, Ted.

TED GLEICHMAN: Go ahead. Sorry.

KIM BROWN: Not to cut you off, but you’re saying that the Federal… with Federal in its name — Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — does not receive any federal dollars, and is funded by the oil and gas industry 100%. Is this accurate?

TED GLEICHMAN: That is accurate. And it’s a two-step program. They get money at the beginning of the year and then they charge it back to the industry at the end of the year, so it’s a wash over a two-year period for the federal budget — a win/win in Washington terms in our current dysfunctional government.

KIM BROWN: Indeed. Talk to us about the history of the Pacific Connector Gas Pipeline, and the related terminal in Coos Bay that has now been put back on the table. Why and how did it ever get removed?

TED GLEICHMAN: FERC is all about the money. Just in the same way that for their own budget that’s where it’s at, that’s also how they are charged under federal law, under the Natural Gas Act, with managing gas facilities. If somebody says that they can make money by selling gas in the market, then they have a right to apply to pipelines that can include things like eminent domain, across the homes of people who had no idea that this was coming at them, and there are thousands and thousands of people throughout the United States who’ve been dealing with this as the shale gas revolution has proceeded.

So, FERC looks at what comes into them and is supposed to assess it according to that — according to the public interest. But they really focus very heavily on whether or not these folks have contracts to sell the product somewhere else. So the West Coast is an obvious place where you might want to be shipping gas to Asia, where a lot of the users are. Japan and South Korea are the biggest ones. Japan especially has no fossil fuels anywhere on those islands, so they import all of their fossil fuels.

The effort to develop a set of LNG export terminals in Oregon started 12 years ago, and there were three running about $7 billion each. We’ve defeated two of them, and we were able to temporarily defeat this set — the Jordan Cove Energy Project in Coos Bay and the Pacific Connector Gas Pipeline to feed it — because they couldn’t get contracts to sell the gas in Asia. They got a couple of preliminary deals, but nothing that was impressive to the regulators at FERC.

Also, it needed an unprecedented level of eminent domain. Some 90% of the landowners along the pipeline route — not including the federal government which owns big pieces of the forests and so on that this pipeline would have to cross — had refused to sign easements to allow the pipeline to go through their property. And that was something that also stuck in the craw for the FERC staff, partially because the Canadian company pushing this pipeline and LNG export terminal was really arrogant about it — both toward the landowners and toward FERC itself. This pipeline — 232 miles across two mountain ranges, five rivers, 400 other watercourses, big chunks of old growth forest and second growth forest in national forests and other federal lands — would devastate this part of southern Oregon.

KIM BROWN: Expand on that, if you could, Ted, because what are the concerns specifically with these particular projects, and who stands to benefit from this pipeline construction?

TED GLEICHMAN: The beneficiaries — let me start with that, because that is really important. In this case, the beneficiaries — big picture — are only the Canadian energy company that would own the pipeline and run the export program, the frackers in the Rockies and Canada who would have the benefit of selling gas to the Canadians, and then the export process for those in Asia who would buy the gas. So there’s no direct benefit to American companies except for the frackers.

But there are a lot of jobs involved. Building a $7.6-billion set of pipeline and an export terminal creates a lot of temporary, high-paying jobs. And that makes a difference at a time when people are suffering all through our economy. The most important aspect of that, though, is that these are not good jobs — if you’d like to define a good job as one that actually helps the planet, the community, long term — and it is very clear that the destruction of the atmosphere through natural gas, coal oil, the other fossil fuels, is not something that is creating good jobs. Good jobs come from renewables. We know that.

The pipeline and the project itself, though, also have their own direct harms to the environment. The pipeline is explosive. It’s a 36-inch high-pressure explosive pipeline that if ruptured — which they do periodically — can create massive firestorms, especially in wooded and mountainous areas, and it requires a hundred-foot-wide clearcut, a clearcut the size of an interstate highway, throughout the entire length of it, in perpetuity.

And one of the interesting things that we have here in Oregon is our earthquake. We are going to have, at some unknown point in time, the largest earthquake and tsunami in United States history. It’s called the Cascadia Subduction Zone — it’s the mirror image of what happened in Fukushima, Japan, where the Pacific plate and the North American plate are rubbing up against each other, and they only crack on an average of once every 250 years, at a magnitude 9. The last time was 317 years ago, in the year 1700, and so we are due. And so, this massive explosive LNG terminal and the pipeline to feed it are scheduled to be built — if approved — on a sand spit on the Pacific Coast that will liquefy when the earthquake hits, and then the pipeline itself running across all of these earthquake-prone mountains and forests and through farms, homes, woodlands that people have operated for generations, which is why they didn’t sign easements and why eminent domain would be required on an unprecedented level.

KIM BROWN: That’s a very sobering picture that you painted there, Ted. And a very interesting point, something that absolutely needed to be said and clarified.

But I wanted to get back to the issue of jobs, as you mentioned, because pipelines have divided the labor unions, and some coming out very in favor of these pipeline projects because they do create jobs for their members. So, what would you say to those in the new administration or even in the unions that say that they are good for our economy as they create much-needed employment.

TED GLEICHMAN: Naomi Klein, whom your viewers will know, of course, as one of the leaders on the climate movement, pointed out after the Keystone XL protests in 2011 at the White House, where I had the honor to be one of the 1,200 people arrested, said that there are jobs created by climate change. The way she put it was, there are jobs cleaning up the rubble.

The point is, not all jobs are created equal. And, although certainly a high-paying construction job, however temporary, is very, very important for somebody who is struggling to meet a mortgage, struggling to put kids through school — all of the things that Americans have been struggling with since Wall Street gave us the Great Recession in 2008. Those aren’t what we need to be doing. The $21 billion that was aimed at shipping fracked gas out of Oregon is the kind of money that needs to be spent for renewables. Solar thermal, solar photovoltaic, solar electric, wind, and the storage systems to allow those systems to replace other sources to create electricity — oil and natural gas.

There is no fossil fuel solution to the fossil fuel crisis that we’re seeing as the climate degrades around us. We all know — even young people like you, Kim — know that this is not the climate we grew up with. And so, we’re living through a slow-motion emergency that becomes an urgent catastrophe when extreme weather events hit. Any job that helps contribute to that disaster cannot be defined as a “good job” job no matter how much it pays.

KIM BROWN: Indeed. We’ve been speaking with Ted Gleichman. He serves as the policy advisor to the Climate Justice Program at the Center for Sustainable Economy. We’ve been discussing about this pipeline construction, along with a terminal in Oregon, that contains liquefied natural gas for export pipelines and terminals being built on the West Coast. And Ted is also one of the key leaders of the state-wide coalition guiding the fight against fracked gas export.

Ted, we really appreciate everything that you just shared with us today. Thank you very much.

TED GLEICHMAN: Thanks for your time, Kim. Appreciate it.

KIM BROWN: And thanks for watching The Real News Network.

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