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Despite petitions, federal regulators approve construction on expanded Northwest gas pipeline

A map of the Gas Transmission Northwest Express pipeline, or GTN Express, from the Idaho-Canada border to Southern Oregon.
Courtesy of TC Energy
A map of the Gas Transmission Northwest Express pipeline, or GTN Express, from the Idaho-Canada border to Southern Oregon.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission this week denied petitions to reevaluate the project that delivers gas from Canada to the Northwest and northern California.

Federal regulators are allowing construction to begin on expanding a controversial gas pipeline running from Washington, across the Idaho panhandle and through Oregon to northern California.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued an order Wednesday giving the greenlight to the pipeline’s owner, the Canadian company TC Energy, to begin construction following its denial Tuesday of appeals from conservationists and attorneys general in Oregon and Washington to reassess its approval of the Northwest XPress expansion project.

The 1,400-mile pipeline already sends billions of cubic feet of gas everyday from Canada to utilities supplying natural gas customers in the Northwest and California. In 2021, TC Energy asked the federal energy commission to allow it to increase the pipeline’s capacity, adding millions of cubic feet of gas extracted by fracking to the pipeline each day. Company representatives told the commission and the Capital Chronicle that they need to increase capacity to meet demand.

Those opposed to the pipeline say the company has not proved a need for an expansion in an increasingly electrifying world and one where renewable energy sources are becoming cheaper and more abundant. Natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, and environmentalists also oppose fracking which involves injecting toxic chemicals into the earth.

Northwest opposition

The project is opposed by environmentalists, the governors of Oregon and Washington, the states’ U.S. senators and the attorneys general of Oregon, Washington and California. For more than a year, they have called on the federal energy agency not to allow the project to move forward. They’ve said expanding the pipeline’s capacity undermines their goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and that the company will invariably pass the costs of the pipeline expansion on to natural gas customers in the region.

Consumers already pay significantly higher prices today for natural gas than they did even three or four years ago. All three natural gas companies in Oregon have requested rate hikes this year from the state’s Public Utilities Commission. Rates have gone up 50% on average since 2020 for residential customers of the state’s largest natural gas utility, NW Natural, according to the watchdog Citizens’ Utilities Board.

The offices of Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and Gov. Tina Kotek did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Natural gas is almost entirely methane, a potent greenhouse gas and a main contributor to global warming. The expansion of the GTN Xpress would result in an additional 3.47 million metric tons of carbon dioxide being released for at least the next 30 years, according to ajoint filing opposing the pipeline that was submitted to the federal commission in August 2022 by Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson and California Attorney General Rob Bonta. Under Oregon’s Climate Protection Program, greenhouse gas emissions need to decrease 90% by 2050. At least 26% of that reduction will have to come from natural gas. A 2020 Washington law mandates a 95% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Nevertheless, in October the commission issued its approval.

Dissent on the commission

The decision on Tuesday to deny a rehearing on the pipeline project approval was not unanimous, and one of the three members of the commission – Allison Clements – said in her dissent that she largely agreed with the states that TC Energy had not demonstrated adequate demand and that the expansion is detrimental to the states’ laws mandating gas companies reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Because FERC made its decision this week, and did not make its decision to deny the petitions within 30 days of issuing its October approval, the petitions are now in federal court, where the states’ attorneys general and attorneys for the Oregon nonprofits Columbia Riverkeeper and Rogue Climate will pursue a hearing by a federal Court of Appeals, where a judge could decide to side with the groups and the states.

“This is the first time in court we would essentially be arguing that FERC has to consider state climate laws when it looks at whether a project sits in the public convenience and necessity,” Audrey Leonard, staff attorney for Columbia Riverkeeper, previously told the Capital Chronicle.

But the pending litigation does not stop TC Energy from moving forward with its construction now that it has approval from the Federal Energy Commission.

Critics say the federal commission has a history of approving pipeline projects with little dissent.

A recent review of the commission’s major pipeline decisions by University of Virginia School of Law Professor Alison Gocke found commissioners approved 423 of 425 proposed pipeline projects in the last 20 years.

The Oregon Capital Chronicle is a professional, nonprofit news organization. We are an affiliate of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. The Capital Chronicle retains full editorial independence, meaning decisions about news and coverage are made by Oregonians for Oregonians.

Alex Baumhardt is a JPR content partner from the Oregon Capital Chronicle. Before that Alex was a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media.