Feds OK natural gas pipeline expansion in Pacific Northwest over environmentalist protests

FILE - TC Energy's Keystone pipeline facility is seen in Hardisty, Alberta, on Nov. 6, 2015. Federal regulators on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023, approved the expansion of a natural gas pipeline owned by TC Energy in the Pacific Northwest over the protest of environmental groups and top West Coast officials. The pipeline project, known as GTN Xpress, belongs to TC Energy of Calgary, Canada — the same company behind the now-abandoned Keystone XL crude oil pipeline. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press via AP, File)

FILE - TC Energy’s Keystone pipeline facility is seen in Hardisty, Alberta, on Nov. 6, 2015. Federal regulators on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023, approved the expansion of a natural gas pipeline owned by TC Energy in the Pacific Northwest over the protest of environmental groups and top West Coast officials. The pipeline project, known as GTN Xpress, belongs to TC Energy of Calgary, Canada — the same company behind the now-abandoned Keystone XL crude oil pipeline. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press via AP, File)

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Federal regulators on Thursday 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 about 150 million cubic feet (4.2 million cubic meters) of natural gas per day. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave it the green light in a vote on Thursday.

TC Energy plans to modify three compressor stations along the pipeline — in Kootenai County, Idaho; Walla Walla County, Washington; and Sherman County, Oregon. 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, Virginia, in July and its existing Keystone pipeline spilled nearly 600,000 gallons of bitumen oil in Kansas last December.

The 1,377-mile (2,216-kilometer) 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% 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 Thursday’s 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.

But environmental groups say the assessment didn’t adequately address the harm caused by the project, including by fracking to obtain the natural gas that flows through the pipeline.

Fracking is a technique used by the energy industry to extract oil and gas from rock by injecting high-pressure mixtures of water, sand or gravel and chemicals. It has been criticized by climate and environment groups for increasing emissions of methane, an extraordinarily potent greenhouse gas.

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Claire Rush is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

Rush is an Associated Press reporter covering Oregon state government and general news in the Pacific Northwest more broadly.