Writers on the Range
Communities in the West can stand up to giant outside corporations if they want to win a renewable energy future, but it isn’t easy. They can do it only if they manage to agree about what they have in common.
That’s the lesson of a historic victory won by a rural Oregon coalition of ranchers and farmers, climate activists, Indigenous tribal leaders, and anglers and coastal residents.
The victory occurred in December, when a Canadian energy company called Pembina announced that it would halt plans to build a 230-mile pipeline crossing more than 400 waterways across rural southwestern Oregon. The pipeline was to carry fracked gas from the Rockies to a huge, proposed Coos Bay terminal on the West Coast, then on to Asia.
When the export project was first proposed years ago, the odds of stopping it appeared slim. Supporters included the state’s governor and its two U.S. senators – all Democrats – plus most of the Republican political establishment.
But community organizers didn’t give up.
“We were already seeing the disastrous effects of climate change throughout the West,” recalls Allie Rosenbluth, campaigns director of Rogue Climate, a grassroots group in southern Oregon. “The last thing we needed was another giant fossil-fuel project and another major fire hazard just to profit an outside corporation.”
As a group committed to organizing across political lines, Rogue Climate did systematic outreach to hundreds of landowners whose property would be affected, while also working with local environmental groups like Rogue Riverkeeper.
Many landowners were conservative ranchers and farmers, and they were angry about threats from the company: If they didn’t let the pipeline cross their land in return for a one-time payment, they were told the power of eminent domain would be invoked to impose it on them anyway. Congress granted this power to gas pipelines in 1947.
Over a seven-year period, the unlikely coalition that grew in strength turned out thousands of residents to public hearings and spurred more than 50,000 people to submit written comments to regulatory agencies. A delegation representing all parts of the coalition even held a sit-in in the governor’s office.
Seven rural landowners from across the political spectrum also published a column in the state’s largest newspaper, the Oregonian. It was blunt: “We are sick and tired of the pie-in-the-sky speculation by these for-profit corporations. We can’t build, we can’t plan, and we can’t sell if we choose because of the threat of eminent domain.”
Don Gentry, chair of the Klamath Tribes, said that the pipeline would “unearth long-buried ancestors and pulverize sites of cultural importance,” also “strip “shade from streams and pollute them with sediment, harming fish central to the Klamath’s traditions and way of life.”
Bill McCaffree, a lifelong Republican and longtime president of the local electrical workers union in Coos Bay, publicly disagreed with construction union leaders who wanted the short-term work for their members. He also said that most workers would come from outside the area.
“Everyone who works in the building and construction trades wants to build things that benefit communities and don’t cause harm,” McCaffree said. “Since I was a kid, there have been jobs here in Coos County from fishing, clamming and oyster farming. What would happen to those jobs when the bay is disturbed by construction and operation of this export terminal?”
A better strategy for creating good, stable jobs, McCaffree said, would be investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy development. That is “creating jobs at a rate 12 times faster than the rest of the U.S. economy,” he said.
In the wake of this broad and organized resistance, state agencies finally announced that the project failed to qualify for necessary permits. That led Pembina to tell federal regulators it was dropping the project.
The coalition didn’t stop with its victory. Members of the coalition convinced the Oregon legislature last year to pass bills to transition Oregon to 100 percent clean energy by 2040, provide $50 million for community-based resilience and renewable energy projects outside of Portland, reduce energy rates, and appropriate $10 million for energy-efficient home repairs for low-income households. The Legislature also banned any new fracked gas power plants in Oregon.
“Most of us who live in small towns and rural areas all want the same things,” said Rogue Climate’s Executive Director Hannah Sohl. “Good jobs, a healthy climate, communities that work for everyone. Even when big corporations have other plans, we can accomplish a lot when we talk to each other and organize.”