ON MARCH 31, a liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant unexpectedly exploded near the rural town of Plymouth, Washington. Less than a month later, a gas tank owned by the same pipeline company, Williams Partners, erupted in Wyoming. Both explosions remain unexplained by the corporation's federal regulator.
While both incidents shook nearby residents and workers, their locations were isolated, which made for a relatively smooth evacuation. However, not all LNG tanks are out of the public eye. One in particular, although maybe not as large as the two that went up in flames, sits far closer to home: right by the St. Johns Bridge.
Its owner, Northwest Natural, says the facility exceeds safety regulations and that it has "emergency protocols" in place. But in light of the recent blasts—and with growing pressure to turn Oregon into the West Coast's first international exporter of LNG—that tank is also reminder of a larger issue. Amid hopes that the gas industry here might take off, can Oregon maintain adequate and transparent control over this controversial energy source?
Initial reactions to the recent explosions—both in their respective communities and across the Northwest—suggest otherwise.
LNG has been under recent scrutiny—due to the increase in US projects—by a handful of groups, ranging from environmental organizations to energy professionals.
"LNG is not a bridge to the future of energy, it's a gangplank," says Ted Gleichman, an Oregon Sierra Club chair member. "It's dirty. The fracking to get it here, the lethal makeup of the gas itself, the energy and money put into building specialty tankers and plants. There's no future."
Experts and advocates say pressure to grow the country's LNG industry has hindered efforts at better regulation, and unhurried investigations of recent LNG plant accidents—which could better inform new rules—could be adding to the problem.
In the Washington State blast, county and city agencies, along with Williams Partners, have handed the investigation to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. And according to Damon Hill, a spokesman for the administration, the evaluation will probably take around 20 months to complete.
"There's no timeline right now," Hill says.
When it comes to the Wyoming facility, all regulation is in the hands of a smattering of state agencies—which adds to the delay. While these types of explosions have increased as the country's development of LNG facilities grows, they still remain a rarity. But with little data to better understand the causes, city and state officials remain stuck with vague guidelines.
"We plan for all hazards, but every disaster's slightly different," says Dan Douthit, spokesman for the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management. "We have no plan specifically for an LNG leak, because we haven't dealt with it before. But we're as prepared as we can be."
In Oregon, at least seven different agencies are involved in LNG issues, ranging from the Oregon Department of Transportation to the Oregon Department of State Lands.
And many of them defer to federal agencies for regulatory policies—the same agencies that take months to finalize investigations.
But Oregon may not have the luxury of waiting for the feds to hand down smarter regulatory standards.
Because of LNG's potential to ease the United States' dependency on foreign oil, environmental advocates say a new fever for processing seems to have dimmed the feds' appetite for regulating West Coast terminals and pipelines. And rising global turmoil in oil and energy markets, driven by conflict in places like Ukraine, is only adding fuel to the fire—encouraging companies to speed up new projects.
"Many energy officials are using the oil crisis in Ukraine to leverage the urgency of exporting LNG," says Julia DeGraw, the Northwest organizer for the Food and Water Watch. "But, in reality, none of these proposed projects would be ready in time to help."
Ground zero for the race to build new export terminals? The Oregon Coast.
But blurred regulatory lines have even tangled that race. The state's first LNG terminal project went bankrupt in 2010, mostly because of permit delays. Now, two major terminal projects are hitting similar congestion: the Jordan Cove Energy Project in Coos Bay and Oregon LNG in Warrenton, five miles west of Astoria. Both locations are far more populated than the areas with the recent blasts.
Jordan Cove is closer to approval than Oregon LNG—but each faces hurdles.
Both terminals need new pipelines—crossing private and public lands (including Portland's neighbor, Columbia County) as well as tunneling under a section of the Columbia River near St. Helens. Both also require large-scale terminal construction near city centers, meaning many jurisdictions have to sign off before a project sees the light of day. For LNG opponents, these kinds of delays offer a chance to fight back. But with so many economic promises affixed to these projects' success, there's concern it could lead to rushed, disorganized regulatory shortcuts.
"There's so much money to be made here," says Columbia Riverkeeper's Dan Serres. "These companies are going to pull out all the stops when it comes to fast-tracking development."
Here's where state politics come into play. Since LNG's introduction to Oregon, state representatives have quietly become more supportive of the energy source, especially as a "cleaner" alternative to coal terminals.
US Senator Ron Wyden—once firmly against LNG terminal production—recently came out in strong support of the Jordan Cove project, applauding its potential for "new jobs and new investment." Governor John Kitzhaber made headlines in April when he shared his strong opposition to the coal industry in a speech to the League of Conservation Voters, even as he angered anti-LNG groups in the same breath.
"[The Clean Fuels Program] will open up our market while supporting Oregon's... propane, natural gas, and other innovative fuel companies ready to invest in the state," Kitzhaber said.
However, the difference between coal and LNG is surprisingly slim.
Refined LNG, which is mostly methane with an added chemical that makes it smell, releases half as much carbon dioxide into the air when burned as coal does. But the energy expended refining LNG leaves a carbon dioxide footprint nearly as large as coal production's.
"Labeling this gas 'natural' is the best re-branding in history," says Sierra Club's Gleichman. "Sure, when a coal train tips over, it's a big deal, but you can see the damage. A leak in a LNG pipeline can go for weeks unnoticed—and then it could be too late."
According to Paul Sansone, a former energy executive with LNG experience who owns land 15 miles from Oregon LNG's proposed pipeline route, one ignored pipeline leak could cost Oregon a fortune.
"If there is the smallest accident during peak fire season along this pipeline, we could lose Tillamook National Forest," Sansone says. "It's not a hypothetical."
So why are formerly fossil-fuel-rejecting politicians now supporting LNG?
It seems to come down to making money for the state—another incentive for moving faster, instead of working more deliberately, on regulatory approvals. The Jordan Cove terminal and its 230-mile feeder pipeline are expected to cost about $7.5 billion—the largest private investment in Oregon's history. Promising jobs and steady tax money, the offer is hard to beat.
And that's not the only interesting connection. Kitzhaber has also received a respectable chunk of campaign donations (about $25,000) from state and federal natural gas companies over the past four years, including Portland's NW Natural. Kitzhaber's office says these contributions had "zero impact" on his political decisions.
"Our state politicians may be run out of office if they disagree with these gas companies," Sansone says. "They don't want to take a stand, because as soon as they do, they're a target. It's a quandary."
The perception that economics might trump policy has advocates firmly convinced the fight for safety is in their hands.
Currently, Columbia Riverkeeper and the Sierra Club are leading that effort, specifically targeting Oregon LNG's Warrenton proposal. For advocates, the biggest fear is letting these major decisions slip through the state to end up at the federal level.
Last October, the Clatsop County Board of Commissioners rejected Oregon LNG's application. However, Oregon LNG appealed to the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals. If the state sides with Clatsop County, Oregon LNG is prepared to appeal to the US Department of Commerce, but the state's decision will loom large for the feds.
"This is not a right/left issue; this impacts all of us," says landowner Sansone. "I care less about losing my own land than I do about losing the public lands and natural resources of our state. We have to put pressure on the politicians to do the damn job they were hired to do."
CORRECTION: The original version of this story misidentified the Land Use Board of Appeals. The Mercury regrets the error.
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to clarify Paul Sansone's energy background and more precisely describe the distance between his property and a proposed LNG pipeline.