Gas pipeline expansion could fuel Pacific north-west climate emergencies

Photograph: AP

   Construction on a gas pipeline expansion through the Pacific Northwest could commence before the new year, a move that state officials argue will undercut the region's transition to renewables and exacerbate climate emergencies.

The Pacific Northwest is grappling with annual wildfires, lethal heat domes, and drought. Despite passing some of the country's strictest laws to transition away from fossil fuels, lawmakers in Washington, Oregon, and California argue that the federal commission's approval of the gas pipeline expansion poses a threat to their 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 establishing caps for the state's largest emitters. "And they essentially ignored that."

In October, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) granted approval for the expansion of GTN Xpress, a pipeline transporting gas from fracking fields in Western Canada through Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and California. Advocates argue that the expansion is necessary to meet growing consumer demand.

FERC's own preliminary environmental assessment indicated that the expansion would result in greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to adding over 700,000 gasoline-powered vehicles to the road each year.

The expansion involves upgrading compressor stations, enabling more gas to flow through the existing pipeline. Critics contend that upgrading compressor stations allows GTN Xpress to circumvent certain regulations.

"We thought we were on the right path," said Pam Marsh, an Oregon state representative who sponsored a 2021 law mandating 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, along with environmental groups, jointly filed a petition urging FERC to withdraw its "deficient, unlawful order authorizing the GTN Xpress Project." They argued that FERC failed to critically assess the project's climate impacts and did not account for state laws that would reduce gas demand. FERC has until December 22 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."

Although FERC is an independent agency, it collects annual fees from the industries it regulates, including the gas industry. Over the past two decades, the commission has approved 423 out of 425 pipeline projects brought 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 a higher risk of some cancers, and carbon monoxide.

Lawmakers and environmental groups have also criticized the 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 occurred 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."

In response to inquiries, Michael Tadeo, the spokesperson for TC Energy, stated, "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 went on to say, "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 address questions regarding TC Energy’s environmental track record.

Critics of the project contend that expanding the pipeline assumes a sustained or growing demand for fossil fuels. Conversely, proponents argue that consumer demand will decrease as the energy transition advances.

“Those precedent agreements do not paint a full picture of demand,” explained Audrey Leonard, an attorney with Columbia Riverkeeper, which opposes the project. “Just because you have someone willing to buy the gas doesn’t mean that gas is necessary.”An independent state regulator has echoed a similar sentiment. This year, Washington's regulatory commission criticized utility company Cascade, which holds a contract to purchase gas from GTN Xpress. The commission pointed out that Cascade relies on outdated energy consumption models that don't account for new state laws, labeling their analysis of GTN Xpress as "conspicuously inadequate."

Despite being questioned about the state commission's remarks, both TC Energy and Cascade chose not to respond.

Responding to inquiries about the project's necessity, Tadeo stated in an email that the demand for gas on the existing GTN system surged by over 26% from 2014 to 2021. He emphasized that supply constraints have led to "unnecessarily high energy prices and strained reliability for consumers."

If FERC rejects the request to halt the project, TC Energy has the green light to commence construction, but it's expected that opponents will pursue appeals in federal courts.

Inslee asserted, "We intend to enforce our laws. If you proceed with this construction, and we enforce these laws, you'll end up with a stranded asset – a bunch of compressors and a pipeline that ratepayers footed the bill for but can't be used."