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Feds Approve Gas Pipeline Expansion in Pacific Northwest

Wed November 01, 2023 - West Edition #23
Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) Federal regulators recently approved the expansion of a natural gas pipeline in the Pacific Northwest over the protest of environmental groups and top officials in West Coast states, who said it goes against the region's plans to address climate change and could pose a wildfire risk.

The project, known as GTN Xpress, aims to expand the capacity of the Gas Transmission Northwest pipeline, which runs through Idaho, Washington and Oregon, by approximately 150 million cu. ft. of natural gas per day. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave it the green light in a vote on Oct. 19.

TC Energy plans to modify three compressor stations along the pipeline — in Kootenai County, Idaho; Walla Walla County, Wash.; and Sherman County, Ore. Compressor stations help maintain the pressure and flow of gas over long distances in a pipeline.

Environmental groups criticized the decision.

In a statement, Audrey Leonard, staff attorney for environmental nonprofit Columbia Riverkeeper, said it represented a "rubber stamp of unnecessary fracked gas in the Northwest" and accused the energy agency of failing to listen to U.S. senators, governors, state attorneys general, tribes and members of the public.

Leonard said potential spills and explosions on the pipeline, which was built in the 1960s, would not only harm the environment but also present a heightened wildfire risk in the arid regions it passes through.

"An explosion of that level in eastern Washington or eastern Oregon would be catastrophic," she said.

Leonard said Columbia Riverkeeper will appeal the federal regulators' decision and submit a petition for a rehearing.

The pipeline belongs to TC Energy of Calgary, Canada — the same company behind the now-abandoned Keystone XL crude oil pipeline.

The company said the project is necessary to meet consumer demand and welcomed the decision in an emailed statement.

Environmentalists and officials opposed to the project have expressed concern about TC Energy's safety record. Its Columbia Gas Transmission pipeline exploded in Strasburg, Va., in July and its existing Keystone pipeline spilled nearly 600,000 gal. of bitumen oil in Kansas last December.

The 1,377-mi. pipeline runs from the Canadian border through a corner of Idaho and into Washington state and Oregon, connecting with a pipeline going into California.

Oregon, along with Washington and California, have passed laws requiring utilities to transition to 100 percent clean electricity sources by 2040 and 2045, respectively.

Idaho's Republican governor and Congress members have supported the project and said that imposing other states' climate policies would be "misguided."

After the vote, Washington's Democratic governor and California's Democratic attorney general condemned the decision. And the Democratic U.S. Senators from Washington and Oregon described the project as "incompatible with our climate laws" in a letter to the energy agency.

"GTN Xpress represents a significant expansion of methane gas infrastructure at a time when California, Oregon and Washington are moving away from fossil fuels," the senators said.

The attorneys general of the three states, citing the energy agency's draft environmental impact statement for the project, said it would result in more than 3.47 million metric tons of planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions per year for at least the next three decades.

The agency's final environmental assessment issued last November revised that number downward by roughly half in calculations contested by environmental groups. This is partly because some of the project's gas would be delivered to Tourmaline, a Canadian natural gas producer. The assessment said it wasn't clear what the end use of the gas delivered to Tourmaline would be, leading it to conclude that the company's downstream emissions — those stemming from consumers — weren't "reasonably foreseeable."

The energy agency's chairman, Willie Phillips, reiterated its stance after the vote.

"There was no evidence presented that this project would significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions," he told reporters. "The commission determined that this project was needed and therefore we support its approval."

In its final assessment, the federal agency also said the compressor stations were in non-forested areas with low to moderate fire hazard and concluded the project "would result in limited adverse impacts on the environment."

"Most adverse environmental impacts would be temporary or short-term," the federal agency said.

The agency recommended certain steps, such as requiring the company to train its personnel and contractors on environmental mitigation measures before any construction begins.

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