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Gas pipeline expansion could fuel Pacific north-west climate emergencies

Washington, Oregon and California have stringent laws to combat fossil fuel, but the approval of GTN Xpress could upend that

By Hilary Beaumont

Construction could start before the new year on a gas pipeline expansion through the Pacific north-west that state officials say will undermine the region’s renewable transition and further fuel climate emergencies.

The region is suffering from annual wildfires, deadly heat domes and drought. Lawmakers in Washington, Oregon and California have passed some of the country’s most stringent laws to move away from fossil fuels, but they say the federal commission that greenlit the project threatens to undermine that progress.

“Our state, and the whole west coast, has numerous laws that will restrict the appetite for gas in the years to come,” said Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington state, who signed a law in 2021 that set caps for the state’s largest emitters. “And they essentially ignored that.”

In October, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (Ferc) approved the expansion of GTN Xpress, a pipeline that carries gas from fracking fields in Western Canada through Idaho, Washington, Oregon and California. Proponents say the expansion is needed to meet growing consumer demand.

Ferc’s own draft environmental assessment found the expansion would result in the greenhouse gas equivalent of adding more than 700,000 gasoline-powered vehicles to the road each year.

The expansion would upgrade compressor stations, allowing more gas to pass through the existing pipeline. Critics say upgrading compressor stations helps GTN Xpress bypass some regulations.

“We thought we were on the right path,” said Pam Marsh, an Oregon state representative, who sponsored a 2021 law requiring state utilities to transition to carbon-free electricity generation by 2040. In 2020, a wildfire destroyed 2,500 homes in Marsh’s district. “Climate change is happening, it’s right in front of us, it’s devastating, and we have to do everything that we can to mitigate the potential damage yet to come,” she said.

In November, attorneys general of Washington, Oregon and California and environmental groups filed a joint petition asking Ferc withdraw its “deficient, unlawful order authorizing the GTN Xpress Project”, arguing that Ferc failed to critically assess the project’s climate impacts. They also said the plan did not account for state laws that would decrease gas demand. Ferc has until 22 December to respond.

“Ferc is a completely captured agency that is failing to do its responsibility under the law,” said Jeff Merkley, an Oregon senator. “In their mind, ‘need’ simply means the fossil fuel companies want to do it, and so they rubber stamp it.”

Ferc is an independent agency, but it collects annual fees from the industries it regulates, including the gas industry. In the last two decades, the commission has approved 423 of the 425 pipeline projects that came before it.

Merkley and three other senators urged the commission to reject the proposed expansion, arguing that “if GTN continues business as usual with its pipeline in 2050, that would represent 48 percent of the region’s target GHG emissions from all sources”. They added, “Put simply, there is no way that our states can meet their emissions goals if this project moves forward.”

Opponents have voiced concerns about health risks associated with the expansion. Compressor stations emit a cocktail of pollutants, like benzene, which is linked to higher risk of some cancers, and carbon monoxide.

Lawmakers and environmental groups have also criticized environmental safety and human rights record of TC Energy, GTN’s parent-company; it was fined for environmental violations on a pipeline in British Columbia, where it was also accused of working with police to arrest Indigenous demonstrators. There was an explosion this year on its Virginia gas pipeline and a massive oil spill on its Keystone pipeline in 2022.

Indigenous groups, including the Indigenous Environmental Network and the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, say the project contributes to a climate crisis that puts native species, like steelhead trout and salmon, at risk.

“We’re definitely worried about [the expansion],” said Alysia Aguilar Littleleaf, who runs a fly fishing business on the Warm Springs reservation in Oregon. “That’s why we opposed it from the very get-go.”

When reached for comment, Michael Tadeo, the TC Energy spokesperson, wrote: “Having undergone over two years of analysis and consideration by the agency, GTN XPress is one of the most thoroughly reviewed infrastructure projects approved by FERC this year.” He added, “We appreciate FERC’s bipartisan action to approve the project and will work diligently to place it into service as soon as possible.” Tadeo did not respond to questions about TC Energy’s environmental record.

Opponents of the project also argue that expanding the pipeline also assumes demand for fossil fuels stays at present-day levels or grows over time. However, advocates argue that consumer demand will fall as the energy transition progresses.

“Those precedent agreements do not paint a full picture of demand,” said Audrey Leonard, lawyer with Columbia Riverkeeper, which is fighting the project. “Just because you have someone willing to buy the gas doesn’t mean that gas is necessary.”

A state regulator independently came to the same conclusion. This year, Washington’s regulatory commission ridiculed the utility Cascade, which has a contract to buy gas from GTN Xpress, for relying on old energy consumption models that fail to consider new state laws. It called Cascade’s analysis of GTN Xpress “conspicuously inadequate”.

TC Energy and Cascade did not respond to questions about the state commission’s comments.

Asked if the project is needed, Tadeo wrote in an email that demand for gas on the existing GTN system grew by more than 26% from 2014 to 2021, while supply has been constrained, leading to “unnecessarily high energy prices and strained reliability for consumers”.

If Ferc denies the petition to stop the project, TC Energy can begin construction, although opponents will likely appeal through federal courts.

“We intend to enforce our laws,” Inslee said. “If you do this construction, and we enforce them, you’ll have a stranded asset, you’ll have a bunch of compressors sitting there and a pipeline you can’t use but you made the ratepayers pay for it.”

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