Feds Approve Expansion of Northwestern Gas Pipeline Despite Strong Opposition Over Its Threat to Climate Goals

Federal regulators approved the expansion of a natural gas pipeline in the Pacific Northwest Thursday morning, bucking fierce objections from Democrats and environmentalists in the region who say the decision is incompatible with climate policies.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission unanimously approved the Canadian energy giant TC Energy’s plan to upgrade the Gas Transmission Northwest system. The 1,400-mile pipeline can move up to 2.7 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day from western Canada to utilities and customers in Idaho, Washington, Oregon and California. 

The commission signed off on the firm’s $335 million plan to increase the pipeline’s capacity by 150 million cubic feet of gas per day, which would involve construction upgrades to three compressor stations along its path that regulate the flow of gas through the pipeline.

The decision is the latest development in a series of battles over fossil fuel infrastructure in the Pacific Northwest. The Oregon-based environmental nonprofit Columbia Riverkeeper vowed to challenge the decision when it’s finalized. Dan Serres, the group’s advocacy director, called it “a huge gift to the fossil fuel industry.”

Natural gas is mostly methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is one of the main drivers of climate change and often leaks into the atmosphere when it is extracted and piped to users. Burning methane also releases carbon dioxide, the gas most responsible for warming the atmosphere. 

In a draft environmental impact statement, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that the upgrade to the Gas Transmission Northwest system would release 3.47 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, mostly as customers use the additional gas. The agency later downgraded that estimate to 1.9 million tons, citing uncertainty in TC Energy’s supply of gas. Environmentalists viewed that change skeptically. An independent analysis by Peter Erickson, senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute’s U.S. Center, determined that the agency undercounted the potential emissions.

TC Energy submitted the project for the commission’s consideration in 2021. In an email, spokesperson Michael Tadeo said the decision will allow the firm to meet a growing demand for the natural gas provided by the pipeline, which has jumped by 26 percent since 2014.

“The GTN Xpress project will play a critical role in keeping energy affordable and reliable for consumers in California and the Pacific Northwest,” Tadeo said. “We appreciate FERC’s bipartisan action today to approve the project and will work diligently to place it into service as soon as possible.” 

The project would involve software upgrades and construction on gas compression facilities in Kent, Oregon; Athol, Idaho; and Starbuck, Washington. Compressors are themselves sources of emissions—The Seattle Times reported the Starbuck compressor released 90,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in engine exhaust and leaks during 2021, about as much as a year’s emissions from 20,000 gas-powered cars.

The reaction among the Northwest’s congressional delegation was split down party lines Thursday. Republicans and the Pipeliners Local Union 798, an Oklahoma-based union whose members work on pipeline projects nationally, applauded the commission for greenlighting the upgrade. 

U.S. Rep. Lori Chavez-DeRemer, an Oregon Republican who expressed skepticism of climate science during her 2022 campaign, said in a statement that the expanded pipeline “will support domestic energy production.” She added that “utilizing natural gas will continue to be important as we work to meet carbon reduction goals.” 

Chavez-DeRemer had organized support for the project among Republican representatives in Oregon, California and Idaho. Meanwhile, attorneys general from Oregon, California and Washington State had asked the commission to deny the project, the Oregon Capital Chronicle reported. It was also opposed by all three governors, a coalition of four Columbia River tribes and a slew of environmental groups.

Democrats condemned the decision in statements. Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley called it “outrageous.”

“FERC may be an obscure federal agency to most people, but there are important decisions on the horizon at FERC that will determine whether the world meets its climate goals,” he said.

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Washington Governor Jay Inslee said the pipeline expansion contradicts federal and state policies intended to slash emissions. Last year, Washington State debuted a carbon compliance market that will require gas utilities and other polluters to progressively limit emissions, including those of customers, or face fines. Oregon lawmakers are also requiring emissions cuts from gas companies, which account for about 13 percent of the state’s emissions. The state’s three gas utilities aren’t on track to comply and are seeking to overturn those rules in court.

Northwest tribes and environmentalists had notched major victories against new fossil fuel terminals in recent years, as firms attempt to satisfy demand for energy in Asia. 

In 2021, multinational developers abandoned long-standing plans to erect a massive liquified natural gas terminal on Oregon’s central coast after a dogged activist campaign. Proposals for major oil and coal terminals in Washington State also failed.

Audrey Leonard, a staff attorney at Columbia Riverkeeper, said energy firms have since pivoted away from proposals for new infrastructure in favor of expanding old pipelines and terminals in the Northwest. FERC is “rubber-stamping everything that comes across its desk,” she said.

Leonard plans to file an administrative appeal of Thursday’s expansion approval with the commission.

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