A radical shift in the world energy picture is raising environmental concerns in the United States.
Until recently, the U.S. had been expected to import more natural gas. But now, because of controversial technologies like "fracking," drillers are producing a lot more domestic natural gas; so much that prices are down, along with industry profits. And drillers are looking overseas for new customers.
Whether the United States should export some of its newly abundant supplies of natural gas is a controversial issue before the Department of Energy. About two-dozen applications have been submitted to the agency for exports to countries that don't have free-trade agreements with the U.S.
Environmentalists are concerned that exporting gas will lead to more drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." Some chemical companies have argued against approving all of the export proposals; they want plenty of cheap natural gas here in the U.S. to fuel manufacturing. And, individually, some of the export proposals have proven controversial in the communities where companies want to build them.
One such plan, the Jordan Cove Energy Project, would sit on the North Spit of lower Coos Bay in Oregon. About 2 miles from the Pacific Ocean, the proposed site isn't much more than sand, tall grass and shrubs now. But if all goes according to plan, there will be two huge storage tanks next to a 45-foot-deep berth for ships. Nearby, a new power plant would run the refrigeration necessary to turn natural gas into the much-easier-to-transport liquefied natural gas (LNG).
The plant would process about 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas every day. That's enough to meet the daily needs of nearly 4 million American homes. But the gas wouldn't stay in the U.S.
"Our principal [markets] are the Asian countries — India, Japan, South Korea — that are strongly interested in securing LNG from the United States," says project manager Bob Braddock.
If the $6 billion project is built, several thousand construction workers would be brought in and housed. After construction, the company says, there will be about 150 new jobs with wages averaging $75,000 a year. That would be a boost to a region hit hard by the decline of the timber industry.
"We need more than just retired people here. We need some young people to stay in the area," says North Bend resident Angeline Pennington. She supports the project and believes it will help the local economy and young families.
But others worry that more industry will affect recreation. "I like to use the bay a lot — crabbing, clamming," says Jeff Allen of Coos Bay. "Now you can go out there and do whatever you want. When they have more industry out there, you're going to have ships coming up the bay."
The controversy extends beyond this coastal town. The project requires a 230-mile-long pipeline to transport gas from Malin, Ore., to the coast. The Pacific Connector Gas Pipeline would cross public and private land.
The potential environmental impact of the project has some landowners worried.
The Oregon Women's Land Trust owns 147 wooded acres about 100 miles away in Douglas County. The group's mission statement says it "is committed to ecologically sound preservation of land, and provides access to land and land wisdom for women."
Board member Francis Eatherington says a clear-cut pipeline route through the property would make it difficult to fulfill that mission. And board Secretary Kaseja Wilder says if the pipeline is built, "there will be women who will come out here and they'll chain themselves to things and they'll lie down in front of machinery."
Opposition to the pipeline has created some unusual alliances. Rancher Bill Gow says on most other issues, he'd be on the opposite side of the Oregon Women's Land Trust. But he is also opposed to this project.
"They're going to put a big scar right through the middle of my ranch," Gow says. "It bothers the hell out of me, and I don't want it there."
But Gow may not have a choice. Eminent domain likely will come into play, and a court could force reluctant landowners to allow the pipeline across their property, though that's not the company's preferred option.
"We'd much rather come to an equitable agreement with the landowners," says Michael Hinrichs, director of public affairs for the Jordan Cove Energy Project and the Pacific Connector Gas Pipeline.
He says 35 percent of the approximately 300 landowners affected have agreed to let the pipeline cross their property. He says 15 percent have refused.
"We like when landowners engage us, because then they can negotiate and we better understand not only their land but what they feel their land is worth," Hinrichs says.
Still, Gow says he will continue to oppose the pipeline and the projects.
"This is to export this gas to another country," he says. "We're taking a resource that is valuable to our economy — we could create jobs in this country with — and we're shipping it overseas."
The Department of Energy considered issues like this in approving a similar project in Freeport, Texas. The department concluded that it would likely "yield net economic benefits to the United States."
Backers of the Oregon project hope to begin construction next year and have the pipeline and the export terminal operating by the end of 2018.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And whether or not to send natural gas out of the U.S. is a major issue for the Department of Energy right now. Around the country, two dozen proposed export projects are awaiting government approval. At issue are concerns, ranging from jobs to energy security, to the impact on local environments. NPR's Jeff Brady reports from Coos Bay on the Oregon Coast.
JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: A short walk from the Pacific Ocean in the middle of a sandy field of tall grass, an industrial property that has long been silent is active again.
(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)
BRADY: A crew for Jordon Cove Energy is beating a cone into the ground, explains project manager Bob Braddock.
BOB BRADDOCK: To determine how solid the ground is to function as a foundation.
BRADY: If all goes according to his company's plan, there will be two huge storage tanks next to a 45-foot-deep berth for ships in Coos Bay. Nearby, a new power plant would run the refrigeration necessary to liquefy about a billion cubic feet of natural gas every day. That's enough to meet the needs of nearly four million American homes. But the gas wouldn't stay here, according to Braddock.
BRADDOCK: Our principal market are the Asian countries - India, Japan, South Korea -that are strongly interested in securing LNG from the United States.
BRADY: LNG is liquefied natural gas. Until recently, most people assumed the U.S. would import LNG, but now, because of controversial technologies like fracking, drillers are producing a lot more domestic natural gas - so much that prices are down, along with industry profits. Drillers are looking overseas for new customers.
The Jordon Cove project here in Coos Bay was originally an import terminal. Now, it'll be an export terminal. The possibility of this $6 billion project has economic development officials excited.
SANDRA GEISER-MESSERLE: My headline would be: our time has come. It's here and, you know, God love it.
BRADY: Sandra Geiser-Messerle heads the South Coast Development Council. Her region's economy suffered with the decline of the timber industry. This project would bring in several thousand construction workers. It also would create about 150 new jobs, with wages averaging $75,000 a year. Geiser-Messerle already is hearing from people interested in those jobs.
GEISER-MESSERLE: And I get phone calls saying: Would you keep my resume? Can I send you a resume? Because we had to move away when there weren't any jobs, and we just want to come home. We really want to come home.
BRADY: In front of a nearby post office, Angeline Pennington says she supports the project.
ANGELINE PENNINGTON: We need more than just retired people here. We need some young people to stay in the area.
BRADY: But talk to a few more people, and you begin to learn this project is controversial.
JEFF ALLEN: I like to use the bay a lot, crabbing, clamming and...
BRADY: Jeff Allen lives in the town of Coos Bay.
ALLEN: Now you can go out there and do whatever you want. When they have the - more industry out there, it's just going to - you're going to have ships coming up the bay. You're not even going to be able to have a boat, get near that.
BRADY: And the controversy extends well beyond this coastal town. That's because this project requires a 230-mile-long pipeline. It would transport gas from south central Oregon to the coast. The pipeline would cross public and private land.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)
BRADY: Now we're about 100 miles inland, hiking up a steep, wooded hillside on property owned by the Oregon Women's Land Trust. Part of the group's mission is to preserve the land.
FRANCIS EATHERINGTON: From here, it goes almost due northwest, right up that hillside right there.
BRADY: Francis Eatherington is a board member, and she's pointing out a proposed route the Pacific Connector Pipeline would take across this property. Crews would cut a wide swath through the mature forest, where trust members now enjoy hiking. As we trace the proposed route, Eatherington stops. In front of us is a grave.
EATHERINGTON: And here lies our friend Carole Gale.
BRADY: Eatherington says Gale wanted to be buried here, and members of the trust agreed. But a proposed pipeline route would cross near here.
EATHERINGTON: This is just one example of a possible way the pipeline could interrupt our lives and take away the value of our land.
BRADY: Eatherington says they've been offered a few thousand dollars in compensation, but board secretary Kaseja Wilder says the group wants no part of this project.
KASEJA WILDER: There will be women who will come out here, and they'll chain themselves to things and they'll lie down in front of machinery. That's what will happen here if they try to bring this pipeline through here.
BRADY: Opposition to the pipeline has created some unusual alliances. Rancher Bill Gow says on most other issues, he'd be on the opposite side of the Oregon Women's Land Trust.
BILL GOW: I'm a right-wing conservative. I believe in property rights.
BRADY: Gow says the pipeline would run across about a mile and a half of his ranch. He doesn't know exactly where, because he won't let surveyors on his property.
GOW: They're going to put a big scar right through the middle of my ranch. But, you know, it's no big deal. It shouldn't bother me. It bothers the hell out of me, and I don't want it there.
BRADY: But Gow may not have a choice. Eminent domain likely will come into play, and a court could force reluctant landowners to allow the pipeline across their property. Gow understands this, but says he won't give in before that time comes.
GOW: It's not for the good of the American people. This is to export this gas to another country. I just can't imagine the mentality. We're taking a resource that is a value to our economy, we could create jobs in this country with, and we're shipping it overseas.
BRADY: The U.S. Department of Energy reached a different conclusion, though. In its most recent approval of another project similar to Jordan Cove, the agency found exporting natural gas would likely yield economic benefits to the country. Back on the Oregon coast, Michael Hinrichs is a spokesman for Jordan Cover Energy and the Pacific Connector Pipeline Project.
He says eminent domain is a last resort.
MICHAEL HINRICHS: We'd much rather come to an equitable agreement with the landowners. We like when landowners engage us, because then they can negotiate, and we better understand not only their land, but what they feel their land is worth.
BRADY: Hinrichs says more than a third of the 300 landowners affected have agreed to let the pipeline cross their property. He says only 15 percent have refused. Amid ongoing negotiations, preparation work on the banks of Coos Bay continues. Backers of the Jordan Cover Energy Project hope to begin construction next year and have the facility operating by the end of 2018.
Jeff Brady, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.