TC Energy, a company that transports 25% of North American natural gas, is seeking to pump 150 million additional cubic feet per day through a pipeline that zig zags through Idaho, Washington, Oregon and California. The pipeline, called the Gas Transmission Northwest, is a 61-year-old, 1,377-mile system that currently delivers as much as 2.7 billion cubic feet of Canadian methane per day. In terms of emissions, the expansion is expected to add 3.24 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year, which is like adding 750,000 cars to the roadways.
The pipeline divides Stevens Ranch and the Stevens Road Tract in east Bend, just north of Knott Landfill. Together the properties are over 600 acres, and if built according to the plans submitted to the City, would include 4,100 new housing units, an elementary school, neighborhood parks and commercial areas. Bend Park and Recreation District plans to build a trail in the general path of the pipeline. The City of Bend annexed Stevens Ranch in 2016 and may do the same for the Stevens Road Tract this year, after holding public hearings. Bend Mayor Melanie Kebler said City staff shared the concept plan with TC Energy but didn't receive any official feedback.
"The pipeline easement area would not be considered buildable land, but is designated as part of open space in the plan, with development bordering it. This is similar to how development has occurred around the pipeline easement to the north in Oregon and Washington," Kebler said in an email.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, a president-appointed body that regulates power transmission and sale of electricity and natural gas, is deliberating on the expansion of the pipeline. FERC staff submitted an environmental impact statement on Nov. 18, 2022, and the commission will now review the project's design, cost, financing and rates before commissioners decide to authorize or end the project.
"By TC Energy's own admission, they say that the influx of the fracked gas into this old pipeline, the social cost of carbon on that is going to be $12 billion," said Diane Hodiak, executive director of 350Deschutes, a climate advocacy nonprofit that seeks to stop new fossil fuel infrastructure.
The social cost of carbon is the estimated financial impacts resulting from climate change, including weather events exacerbated by a warming climate and pollution. In Central Oregon extreme weather events manifest as drought, heatwaves and wildfires. Pollution is a risk across the pipeline's 1,377 miles.
"The pollution from the pipeline is going to result in deaths as well, because we have research documenting that all pipelines leak, and this one will be no different," Hodiak said. "Natural gas is methane. And it's known to cause health risks of asthma, heart and respiratory disease."
TC Energy's pipelines have leaked before. It owns and operates the Keystone Pipeline, the controversial infrastructure that led to one of the largest climate protests in the nation's history. Keystone's most recent pipeline leak is its largest, spilling 600,000 gallons of crude oil into a creek in Washington County, Kansas, in December.
"That was the worst spill that's happened in over a decade. And that happened right after they increased the pressure to that pipeline, just like they're pushing to do here," said Maig Tinnin, the Rogue Valley Coordinator for Rogue Climate, an environmental advocacy nonprofit in Medford, west of TC Energy's pipeline.
Tinnin said TC Energy has a bad track record as a pipeline operator, and that the aging pipeline is concerning. The increased capacity is supported by three proposed upgrades at compressor stations in Kootenai County, Idaho, Walla Walla County, Washington, and Sherman County, Oregon — but overall infrastructure investments to the aging pipeline aren't included.
"In terms of significant infrastructure investments, that hasn't been something that they've included in their proposals," Tinnin said. "This is something that fossil fuel companies do, they know that things are going to leak. And they also know that they're not going to have to pay anywhere near the actual cost of the cleanup. It's just the cost of doing business for them."
Political back and forth
Support for the project is split along political lines, with Republican elected officials in Idaho supporting the expansion and Democratic officials in Oregon, Washington and California opposed. In August the attorney generals for Oregon, Washington and California asked FERC to halt the pipeline's expansion. They argued the environmental impact statement is deficient and in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act. A joint statement from the attorneys general said the EIS failed to accurately characterize and analyze the climate change impacts of the expansion, consider alternative options, account for Western states' climate goals or prove there's a demand for the product.
"Expanding the capacity of this pipeline would have significant environmental and public health impacts and is out of step with state and federal climate goals – and FERC can't honestly say otherwise. The reality is, when we expand gas infrastructure, it's all too often minority, low-income, and Indigenous communities that pay the price. I urge FERC to comply with the law and not allow this expansion to move forward," California Attorney General Rob Bonta said in a press release.
Oregon Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden weighed in to FERC in December, writing to Chairman Richard Glick that the proposal is out of step with federal and state goals and claiming the environmental impact statement uses methodology that minimizes climate impacts. It also emphasized the renewable energy sources the state is investing in.
"Oregon has enacted policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and move away from fossil gas, including making investments in renewable energy. Renewable alternatives can meet energy demands without the climate and safety risks caused by fossil fuels," Merkley and Wyden wrote.
The senators questioned what the gas would be used for, and FERC's EIS couldn't determine the end use of the additional natural gas. The senators also criticized FERC's process in evaluating climate impacts, saying it fails to consider "upstream emissions" — which occur during the production of goods and services — and "fugitive emissions" which are unintentional leaks or discharge of gases.
"FERC discarded the established and growing body of peer reviewed, academic literature indicating that supply side policies have an impact on greenhouse gas emissions by not even considering emissions from upstream production. FERC also assumes that fossil gas will be completely combusted without fugitive emissions despite academic literature showing that leaks exist throughout the entire fossil gas supply and distribution chain," Merkley and Wyden wrote. "FERCs methodology biases its analysis by minimizing the impacts that projects have on the climate."
Idaho's two senators, congressmen and governor sent a letter of approval to FERC, and criticized other Western states' attempts to use statewide goals to block an interstate project. But Huffington Post revealed that the TC Energy authored that letter and handed it off to the lawmakers.
"Attempts to use the [National Gas Act] to impose individual state policy preferences on other states would be misguided and clearly conflict with observable, real-life need for additional pipeline capacity," the letter read. "Given these legal considerations, the demonstration of clear market signals, and the need for low-cost, reliable energy, FERC must move quickly in the approval process for the GTN Xpress Project."
The Citizens Utility Board, a nonprofit advocate for residential utility customers, has also raised concerns about the project. CUB said the analysis of the project's impacts should be vetted by the Oregon Public Utility Commission and cast doubt on Cascade Natural Gas Corporation's ability to adhere to emission goals with its share of TC Energy's expanded natural gas pipeline. Under the state's climate goals, utilities will have to cut emissions in half by 2035, meaning all current customers must reduce emissions by 50% and all new customers can't emit greenhouse gasses at all. CUB Executive Director Job Jenks said this project may have made sense several years ago, but not now.
"We're not going to [reduce emissions by 50%] and keep doing business-as-usual low growth on the system. For gas utilities, there's going to need to be electrification, there's going to be deep energy efficiency, there's going to be needing to pick actions to reduce demand for fossil gas. And since fossil gas is what's going to be in this pipeline, you really aren't going to be able to sort of expand your need for more fossil gas to be delivered and cut your emissions by 50% in less than 15 years," Jenks said.
Senators Merkley and Wyden noted that there's no end use for some of the gas, specifically that purchased by Tourmaline Marketing Group. Rogue Climate's Maig Tinnin questions whether it'll even be used in the state.
"The need for it is decreasing, because folks all around the Northwest and around the country are trying to transition to cleaner forms of energy. So, I think they're trying to get out ahead of this type of change that's happening, and make sure that they've got space to still push it through," Tinnin said. "Even if we don't need it, it's totally possible that they could use this for export. And our communities could be used as a pass-through community where we're bearing the risk of them pushing this increased pressure through."
Gas utilities must prove to the Oregon Public Utility Commission that they're reducing carbon emissions at a pace that meet state goals every three years. If a utility fails to meet these standards, the state can enforce penalties on them.
"The penalties could potentially be quite severe," CUB's Jenks said. "At this point, the draft plan that Cascade put forward, we don't think is adequate."
Jenks said the plan's assumptions about the volumes of renewable natural gas and hydrogen are unsustainable. Renewable natural gas is captured from decomposing organic matter, typically at landfills, wastewater treatment plants and livestock operations. It's then processed and purified into pipeline-quality gas.
"If they're doing wastewater treatment plants and landfills and really trying to establish the renewable gas capacity, is it a local source? Then it's not going to go in an interstate pipeline. The interstate pipeline will be fossil gas. Renewable gas that's replacing it, if they can get enough volumes would potentially be coming from somewhere else. We just don't see where the volumes are there," Jenks said.
Renewable natural gas costs several times more than traditional natural gas. CUB argued that if the power grid electrifies, the remaining natural gas customers will bear a high amount of costs to maintain the system of pipelines and the higher share of more-expensive renewable gases. Jenks said that will disproportionately impact people who can't afford to electrify their homes' heating system and renters who don't control their utilities.
"About half the cost of the gas system is the pipeline network that serves the customers. If that pipeline network is being recovered from a smaller and smaller set of customers, then that cost goes up, too," Jenks said. "It's going to be a cycle that we just are really concerned is going to hit people really hard."
New pipelines are rarely approved, but fossil fuel companies have quietly been able to pass through expansion projects over the past couple of years. Tinnin said they've discovered 15 expansion projects that've been approved since 2017.
FERC set a Feb. 16 deadline for other commissions, agencies and individuals to submit final comments before they decide the outcome of the expansion. The Environmental Protection Agency Policy already voiced concerns with the analysis in the environmental impact statement, and offered recommendations to address them. FERC hasn't set a date to make a decision, and Tinnin said it'll only be known once FERC puts it on a docket.
"It could be as soon as this month, but it could also go for several more months before they make a decision," Tinnin said.
Tinnin is part of a group hosting a "People's Hearing" via Zoom on Feb. 13 from 5-7pm to raise awareness of the pipeline to gather public comments on the project. FERC didn't host any public hearings on the project, and all of the "People's Hearing" will be delivered to FERC as public comments.