Why the West Coast Will Determine the Fate of the Fossil Fuel Industry
Despite a string of victories in the last few years limiting the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure on the West Coast, Donald Trump’s presidency shows it was never going to be easy to defeat the oil and gas industry.
In two months, Trump has moved to revive the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipeline routes that had been blocked by the Obama administration, expedite environmental reviews for infrastructure projects, and reverse fuel efficiency standards for automobiles. He is expected to reverse environmental regulation policies established under President Obama, including the Clean Power Plan, and will not likely adhere to the commitments of the Paris Climate Agreement.
Republicans in Congress have followed suit, voting to kill two regulations passed in the waning days of the Obama administration: the Stream Buffer Rule, which prohibits coal companies from dumping toxic waste into an estimated 6,100 miles of streams; and a Bureau of Land Management rule that directs energy companies to capture natural gas from drilling operations on public lands rather than allowing them to burn or vent it into the atmosphere, where it’s heat-trapping potential is 84 times that of carbon dioxide.
For now, the situation is “scary,” says Mia Reback, a climate justice organizer with 350 PDX in Portland, Oregon. At the same time, she said, Trump has sparked “a groundswell of people coming into the climate justice movement who are looking to strategically and thoughtfully take action to create political change.” At her organization alone, orientation attendance has increased tenfold since the election.
All along the West Coast, environmentalists are gearing up for an epic fight. Advocates of a clean energy economy talk of building a “thin green line” from California to British Columbia to protect and improve on gains against the spread of fossil fuel infrastructure so that the production, use, and export of oil, coal, and natural gas steadily decline.
The fronts in this war are multiplying—along pipelines and rail lines, in the courts and media, through finance and all levels of government—even as an emboldened fossil fuel industry tries to roll back gains for climate justice and revive stalled infrastructure projects. Opponents are outmatched by the billions of dollars energy companies can throw around, but they are buoyed by an invigorated grassroots effort to stymie the industry and strengthen resistance by local elected officials. And they are aided by economic trends that increasingly favor renewable energy.
Portland and the entire Northwest are key to the fate of the fossil fuel industry simply because of geography, explained Dan Serres, conservation director of Columbia Riverkeeper. The Columbia River, which forms most of the border between Washington and Oregon, is the most accessible shipping point for large flows of oil, coal, and natural gas seeking a deep-water pass. The river’s path also provides the flattest route for trainloads of oil and coal. As such, the Northwest is the gateway between vast energy reserves in the U.S. interior and huge markets in Asia.
In the past decade, as fracking unlocked crude oil and natural gas stores in shale formations from Pennsylvania to North Dakota, and China’s industrial appetite for fossil fuel boomed, energy companies rushed to develop projects in the Northwest to link supplies to these markets.
The Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based think tank, warned in 2014 that 26 proposed fossil fuel projects in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia would carry the equivalent of more than five Keystone XL pipelines worth of global-warming carbon. Three years later, just a dozen of those proposals are standing. This was due both to grassroots resistance efforts and economics.
Portland is on the forefront of the action. In December, its city council unanimously passed an ordinance proponents hailed as “a first-in-the-country ban on new bulk fossil fuel storage facilities that exceed two million gallons” and which also prohibits existing terminals from expanding. At the state level, Oregon passed a bill last year to eliminate coal-fired power from its energy grid by 2035, increase its share of renewable energy for electricity to at least 50 percent by 2040, and beef up capacity for electric vehicles. The measure is significant because it makes progress toward the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which was blocked by the Supreme Court last year and which Trump has vowed to kill.
Throughout the Pacific Northwest, over a million people have registered opposition to energy exports through a grassroots campaign that has included knocking on doors, gathering signatures, attending hearings, and pushing cities to pass resolutions against expanding fossil fuel infrastructure. Serres said that when the “barrage of fossil fuel projects started in 2010, there [were] plans for six facilities for 147 million tons of annual coal exports through the Columbia River Gorge. We have whittled these projects down to one for 44 million tons annually. And that last one in Longview, Washington, was just dealt a severe blow in January when the state denied it a key lease agreement.”
Indigenous nations took the lead in defeating some projects. Last May, the Lummi Nation successfully lobbied the Army Corps of Engineers to scuttle the Gateway Pacific coal terminal slated for the coast of northern Washington. The terminal would have exported 54 million tons of coal annually, imperiling the tribe’s fishing rights.
Oil terminals are dying on the drawing board as well, with only one significant proposal remaining. The Tesoro Savage Petroleum Terminal would be the largest oil-by-rail project in the nation, with a capacity of 360,000 barrels a day. The Washington state attorney general and the city of Vancouver have each opposed the project, and Gov. Jay Inslee has the final say.
Some environmentalists worry the Trump administration could circumvent the state by exerting federal power over ports. By altering the rules so ports are treated like railroads, which are regulated by Congress under the commerce clause of the Constitution, local government control would be mostly limited to some public health and safety grounds. But in Oregon, even that toehold was enough for Portland’s city council to take a successful stand against oil trains. Although the city’s 2015 resolution couldn’t block the trains outright, it paved the way for the far-reaching plan to block new fossil-fuel infrastructure projects.
Market forces are proving to be one of the biggest obstacles to Trump’s plan to supercharge fossil fuel exports. With coal giants declaring bankruptcy and the price of oil remaining low, activism and local opposition have tipped the balance against projects that lack economic rationale. In some cases, regulators denied permits to projects because they lacked the long-term buyers needed to justify the environmental, safety, and health impacts, said Tarika Powell, senior research associate at the Sightline Institute.
That is the case in British Columbia, where 20 different liquefied natural gas projects are currently on hold. “Everyone thought LNG would be the next big gold rush” when oil was at $100 a barrel, Powell said. “Trucking and shipping industries were looking at converting their vehicle fleets. Then the price of oil fell in half, and it was no longer worth the price of conversion. The stalled LNG projects in British Columbia are because of economics, not regulations.”
Last spring, the federal government denied permits for a separate LNG export terminal at Coos Bay in southern Oregon because its backers could not demonstrate demand for the natural gas. In March, however, the Canadian energy company Veresen resubmitted its plans hoping Trump's energy regulatory commission appointees will resurrect the Jordan Cove LNG project.
There are no easy victories for environmental campaigners. In November, Canadian Premier Justin Trudeau approved two pipelines that could disgorge up to a million barrels of notoriously dirty tar sands oil a day. Burning that amount of oil would release 27 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere, the equivalent of adding 58 million cars to the road. Even if court battles, activist campaigns, and shifting economic conditions do manage to scotch the two pipelines, Canada is expected to overrun its 2030 carbon reduction goal by at least 91 million tons.
Pushing back against the city’s strong environmental sentiment, the Portland Business Alliance, Western States Petroleum Association, and construction unions are trying to overturn the city’s ban on fossil fuel infrastructure. A coalition of physicians, environmentalists, and citizen groups has formed to oppose them.
Conservative legislators in at least 18 states have also introduced bills to criminalize protest. A bill in Washington would redefine the peaceful blockade of oil and coal trains as economic terrorism, though few expect it to pass. In Oregon, a bill has been introduced to preempt other municipalities in the state from enacting fossil fuel bans, but activists are working to stop it from ever leaving committee.
But in a clear sign of this movement’s growing strength, the Seattle City Council unanimously approved a bill in February to end the city’s contract with Wells Fargo because the scandal-ridden bank has loaned money for the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. Wells Fargo handles about $3 billion in annual city revenue.
Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who chairs the Energy and Environment Committee, said her office put the legislation forward. She credited “the leadership of some really brilliant indigenous activists, environmental activists, and 350 Seattle” in creating a movement the council could not ignore. “The only reason that legislation saw the light of day and got voted on was because the movement was so strong here,” she said.
Since then, the Seattle movement has held two conference calls with activists in other cities to discuss how lessons can be applied from their campaign. In California, Davis and Santa Monica quickly followed Seattle’s lead, by pulling accounts totaling more than $1 billion in annual transactions from Wells Fargo.
These measures are proof that, given the proper care and attention, a green wall can grow along the West Coast, even in dark times.