Building on Climate Victories

Our region has seen countless fossil fuel proposals.

November 17, 2023

Building on Climate Victories

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By Audrey Leonard, Staff Attorney
Originally published in Columbia Riverkeeper “Currents” Issue 3, 2023.

headshot of Audrey Leonard, staff attorney with Columbia Riverkeeper
Audrey Leonard, staff attorney, photo by Zowie DeLeon

The last year has been a whirlwind. When I joined Columbia Riverkeeper in July 2022, I knew I was joining a team of strategic and creative advocates. What has continued to impress me: the tenacity of the communities we work with to fight for a livable climate in the Pacific Northwest.
Our region has seen countless fossil fuel proposals. Together with firefighters, fishers, foresters, farmers, health professionals, educators, union leaders, and Tribes, Columbia Riverkeeper and our partners have stopped more than a dozen proposed fossil fuel facilities, ranging from coal exports to LNG terminals. Working alongside and amplifying those voices is what makes my job on the Fighting Fossil Fuels program team so much more than just being a lawyer.

A New Landscape

In the wake of over 15 years of successes defeating fossil fuel infrastructure projects, the industry has shifted tactics. Now, we’re seeing more proposals to expand existing infrastructure—like pipelines, refineries, and waterfront-industrial terminals—rather than build new facilities. Why? Existing infrastructure typically has some of the required permits, and regulators often approve capacity expansions even where they might reject a new project.

In this changing landscape, Columbia Riverkeeper has adapted quickly to keep fossil fuels in the ground and out of communities. A prime example: the GTN Xpress Pipeline, a proposal to increase the amount of fracked gas flowing through the existing 1,354 mile interstate Gas Transmission Northwest (GTN) pipeline. The project would push more fracked gas through the GTN pipeline, resulting in over 3.47 million tons of greenhouse gas pollution every year. GTN Xpress is also a dirty deal for ratepayers and communities near the pipeline.

Columbia Riverkeeper plays a central role in elevating the GTN Xpress Pipeline fight regionally and nationally, including fiscally-sponsoring a grassroots coalition. Alongside community members, over 50 local and national organizations, and the coalition, we helped turn an under-the-radar proposal into a high-profile national climate issue. To date, the project is opposed by nine members of Congress; the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission; the attorneys general of Washington, Oregon, and California; and Governors Inslee and Kotek. On October 19, 2023, FERC approved TC Energy’s proposal. We’re not giving up. In 2024, Columbia  Riverkeeper will continue to  fight this dangerous proposal  in court and beyond.

Digging Deep on Alleged Climate Solutions

Many fossil fuel industry players claim that “renewable fuels” are the answer to our problems. It turns out that not all “renewable fuels” advance climate action. Columbia Riverkeeper is committed to uncovering greenwashing from corporations that value profits over actual environmental progress and fighting projects that will do more harm than good. Two prominent examples: NEXT Renewable Fuels’ proposed non-conventional diesel refinery in Columbia County, OR, and the Zenith oil-by-rail terminal in Portland, OR.

NEXT Renewable Fuels

Columbia County, OR The company’s proposed gas-fired refinery would emit over 1 million tons of greenhouse gas pollution each year and displace 140 acres of wetlands in the Columbia River Estuary. The good news: NEXT has yet to secure several key permits. In 2024, we will submit detailed comments on NEXT’s environmental impact statement and continue supporting community organizing.

Zenith Energy: Portland, OR 

The saga continues. Columbia Riverkeeper and incredible local organizations and community partners have been fighting the Zenith oil-by-rail facility for years. Initially, we won: the City of Portland denied a key land use permit. Zenith appealed. Lower courts ruled in the city’s favor— and then the city struck a deal with Zenith, approving five more years of dangerous oil operations in exchange for a promise to switch to “renewable” fuels.

Alongside community members, over 50 local and national organizations, and the coalition, we helped turn an under-the-radar proposal into a high-profile national climate issue.

Fast forward to today: Columbia Riverkeeper continues to advocate for the city to take a stand against Zenith’s proposed expansion under the guise of “renewables.” In 2024, we will continue to take a hard look at industry proposals with alleged climate benefits and weigh in when the promises don’t hold up to scrutiny.

Change for the Long Haul

This year, Columbia Riverkeeper’s Fighting Fossil Fuels program also built on important victories to protect our climate at the local and state levels, including advocacy at the Oregon Public Utility Com- mission, the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, and in river communities. Case in point: We celebrated a major victory this fall when the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals upheld the City of Portland’s zoning ordinance banning new bulk fossil fuel facilities. Columbia River- keeper intervened to support the city’s ordinance against an industry challenge, represented by the amazing team at Crag Law Center. This is a huge win for public health and safety. It is an honor to be a climate advocate on Columbia Riverkeeper’s team. Each new challenge is an opportunity to create a better future. I hope you’ll join me in finding inspiration in the victories we share along the way.

Canada geese on the Columbia River take flight from the Hanford Reach.

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