It’s His Land. Now a Canadian Company Gets to Take It.

ProPublica – by Lee van der Voo

This past spring, while much of the country focused on COVID-19, three men who work in an obscure corner of the federal government weighed a question with profound effects across the American West. On the docket was a proposal to build a natural gas pipeline that would slice through hundreds of miles of Oregon wilderness, private lands and areas sacred to American Indians. The plan, which had been repeatedly rejected by state and federal regulators for more than a decade, would give a Canadian company the right to seize the land it needed from any American property owner who stood in the way. The government panel that would make the decision can meet in person. But on this March afternoon, it was conducting the people’s business in writing — government by what amounts to dueling memos.

The members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission are typically the kind of people President Donald Trump has in mind when he derisively talks about the “deep state”: faceless bureaucrats who pull the levers of power with little scrutiny or accountability. Except these were Trump’s bureaucrats. Two of the three members had been appointed by the president, whose enthusiasm for any project that might be cast as boosting America’s fossil fuel industry is nothing if not predictable.

It is hard to argue that the plan to connect the Oregon coast via pipeline to the Canadian Rockies would do much for American frackers hit hard by an international energy glut. For one thing, the gas would come from Canadian wells, at least at first. Also, it was uncertain whether there was much of a market for gas that would be piped 229 miles through Oregon to supertankers docked at a high-tech facility in the fishing town of Coos Bay. Backers of the project had assured FERC that they would find customers in Asia, that many countries would someday stop buying cheap and locally available coal and fuel their industries with far more expensive but cleaner North American gas. Even supporters acknowledged that such a shift was unlikely to happen anytime soon and might not tap American gas wells along the route for years.

The state of Oregon had refused to approve the project, and FERC had rejected it once already. But Jordan Cove, as it’s called, had come roaring back to life with help from a powerful advocate operating from what Trump likes to call “the swamp.” The lead lobbyist for the Canadian company was David Urban, a Republican political operative credited with delivering the traditionally Democratic state of Pennsylvania to the president in the 2016 election. The argument in favor of the project hit two key tenets of Trumpism: It would create jobs in the U.S. and counter the influence China had on its neighbors as an energy exporter.

By law, the question before the FERC commissioners was whether the project served the “public interest.” Simply put, did the benefits of constructing a pipeline and a facility that would turn gas into its more easily transported liquid form, called liquefied natural gas, or LNG for short, outweigh the possible harm?

Both Republicans voted yes. Chairman Neil Chatterjee, a former policy adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, shared the news in a jolly Twitter post. He was “pleased,” he declared. “This is the 12th #LNG export project \@FERC has approved since I became Chairman,” he wrote, adding “#JordanCove” just because. The Democrat on the losing side of the 2-1 vote called the approval a departure from reasoned decision-making and complained that his colleagues had not even considered the effect an export gas facility would have on climate change.

Three thousand miles away, news of the project’s approval sent Bill Gow, a cattle rancher from southern Oregon, into a lasting funk. He’d spent more than three decades building his business on land in the path of the pipeline. Now he could lose a chunk of it, along with something he had once taken for granted: the liberty to be the only person who could decide how that land was used.

“For about a week I walked around in a fog thinking, Jiminy Christmas this can’t be,” Gow said.

He’d been fighting the pipeline since 2004 and thought he killed it, twice. This time, he could scarcely believe what it would bring: A foreign company could just take his land? It can do this, even if it never delivers gas to a single American household, and irrespective of whether it ever builds anything?

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