By Stephen Quirke
For the fourth time since July 2013, Washington state is requiring an analysis of the full climate impacts of a major fossil fuel project proposed within its borders.
Most recently, the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency announced on January 24 it would hire a consultant to undertake a full life-cycle analysis of greenhouse gas emissions associated with Puget Sound Energy's liquefied natural gas (LNG) project at the Port of Tacoma.
That analysis will finish an incomplete environmental review undertaken by the City of Tacoma. It will join earlier climate impacts analyses of the now-defunct Gateway Pacific coal export terminal near Bellingham and the potentially defunct Millennium Bulk coal export terminal in Longview, as well as an analysis currently underway for the proposed fracked-gas-to-methanol export facility in Kalama.
“This step … should not be interpreted as a sign that we’re not going to approve the project or are going to approve the project,” Steve Van Slyke, director of compliance for the clean air agency, told The News Tribune, referring to Tacoma LNG. “It’s just an analysis and information we need to get on the table.”
Still, the agency's decision to delay granting a required air permit — contingent on this analysis — is a blow to developer Puget Sound Energy, which has faced ongoing protests since it began work at the Tacoma LNG site in November 2016. Last September, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, representing 60 tribal governments throughout the region, called for all federal, state, and local agencies “to ensure cessation of illegal construction activities of the proposed Tacoma LNG Plant.”
Faulty Guidance on Climate Impacts
According to the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, Tacoma’s initial environmental impact statement did not properly analyze the LNG project's greenhouse gas emissions because the city relied on an erroneous guidance document from the Washington Department of Ecology, which has since removed the document from its website.
The same document was also referenced by Washington's Shoreline Hearings Board when it struck down key permits for the world's largest proposed fracked-gas-to-methanol facility in Kalama, also mandating a full life-cycle analysis of the greenhouse gas impacts.
In both cases, local governments designated as lead agencies by the Department of Ecology used what turned out to be a flawed document in their analyses of climate-related impacts. According to testimony by the department’s Brenden McFarland, the document was intended for internal use, and was removed to make it consistent with federal guidance, department policies, and “new scientific and legal information concerning greenhouse gas emissions.”
Some of that “legal information” appears potentially related to the ongoing litigation of the nonprofit Our Children’s Trust, which is asserting the “legal right to a stable climate” for the Washington youth it represents. Washington courts have continually found there is a government duty to protect the global atmosphere, and have compelled the state to take action to protect young people from the damaging impacts of climate change. On April 29, 2016, the same month the Department of Ecology removed its flawed climate guidance document, a court also ordered it to craft rules limiting greenhouse gases by the end of the year.
Federal guidance on implementing the National Environmental Policy Act also underwent several revisions between 2010 and 2016, but in each one the White House Council on Environmental Quality noted the importance of analyzing “indirect” climate change effects from upstream and downstream greenhouse gas emissions — just as the board required in Kalama, and the clean air agency now requires in Tacoma. In 2016 the final guidance became even more specific: advising federal agencies to distinguish between short- and long-term climate effects, and referencing a study of LNG that highlighted the product’s very high short-term global warming impact.
Camille St. Onge, a spokesperson with the Washington Department of Ecology, said the state’s climate guidance document was taken down “purely because it was out of date” and not because it was connected to any of the outcomes of the Our Children’s Trust case. She clarified that guidance on large projects were being handled “on a case-by-case basis now.”
Northwest Natural Gas Projects Hitting Snags
Across the Pacific Northwest, public opposition has slowed or stopped expansions to natural gas infrastructure that would feed the Canadian fracking industry.
In April 2016, a proposal to build the largest fracked-gas-to-methanol plant was canceled in Tacoma —leaving behind Tacoma LNG and two other methanol projects in Kalama, Washington, and Port Westward, Oregon.
In May 2017, Portland General Electric announced it was suspending its permitting efforts to build two new natural gas plants about 150 miles east of Portland, Oregon, in the town of Boardman, where the state's last coal-fired power plant will close in 2020.
The natural gas plants received significant pushback from environmental groups and over 100 members of the Confederated Umatilla Tribes, who condemned “extreme fossil fuel infrastructures that undermine our clean air, sacred water and land.”
In southern Oregon, the Jordan Cove LNG export project, along with the Pacific Connector pipeline that would feed it, is seeking federal approval from the Trump administration for an application which was initially rejected under the Obama administration. According to one estimate, the LNG terminal and pipeline would produce greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 11 million new cars on the road.
Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley has since come out against the proposal, observing that if built, Jordan Cove LNG would become the largest carbon polluter in Oregon.
Puyallup Tribe Wants Tacoma LNG Construction Stopped
Back in Tacoma, the Puyallup Tribe is pushing local, state, and federal agencies to immediately halt construction at the LNG facility, saying that work is illegal, and that a delayed air permit makes some existing permits null and void.
Curt Hart with the Department of Ecology says the agency disagrees with the Puyallup Tribe's assessment, and points to a letter stating it does not anticipate “taking any enforcement action against PSE [Puget Sound Energy].” This does not sit well with the tribe.
“They’re not in compliance with their permits,” Annette Bryan, a Puyallup Tribal Councilor, told DeSmog. “How are we supposed to believe that they're gonna have any regard for the way that they operate the plant … how are we supposed to believe that they have any regard for our health and our safety, and our natural environment?”