Several local county commissioners were among officials from Colorado, Wyoming and Utah who made the trip to Oregon this week to comment in person in support of the Jordan Cove liquefied natural gas project proposal there.
They only got three minutes apiece to speak, did so behind closed doors with Federal Energy Regulatory Commission staff rather than before an audience, and alternatively could have just submitted comments in writing. But two of the commissioners, Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky and Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese, said they thought it was important to make their cases in person.
Said Jankovsky, "I think being a county commissioner and having people have land use decisions in front of us, I know when we have an audience full of naysayers or people who are against the project and the applicant doesn't have anybody in favor of a project, it makes a difference. And so that's why I decided to travel this far for this. I think it does make a difference to be here in person."
The Jordan Cove project is proposed by Pembina Pipeline Corp. as a way to ship gas drilled in Canada and the U.S. Rockies to Asian markets. Besides the LNG facility at Coos Bay, it would consist of a 229-mile pipeline project in Oregon to connect it with interstate pipelines.
FERC is taking public comments this week in four cities over four days. Project opponents — including protesters who showed up at Wednesday's event in Medford — say the project would cause environmental damage to areas such as wetlands, encourage fossil-fuel development that contributes to global warming, and negatively impact landowners along the pipeline route.
The Western States and Tribal Nations initiative, a coalition based in oil-and-gas-producing areas in northwest Colorado, northeastern Utah and Wyoming, has formed in support of projects such as Jordan Cove, and 16 representatives of the group attended Wednesday's FERC event and also held a press conference. Mesa County Commissioner John Justman and Rio Blanco County Commissioner Jeff Rector were among others in the group besides Jankovsky and Pugliese.
Pugliese said by telephone that the presence of people from the three states at the FERC event sent a statement.
"We have a strong physical presence here right now, which I think is really important just to show how we are so committed to this project, moving through the process and getting it permitted," she said.
Pugliese said the closed-door setup of the FERC event was different from her experience in settings such as testifying before congressional subcommittees, but she understood the approach given that it was just FERC staff rather than the commission involved.
"I think it was probably a good way to control the room," she said.
But Jankovsky expressed disappointment over the format.
"I'd like to be able to have people listen to what we have to say," he said.
He said his message to FERC was mostly about the value of natural gas development for Garfield County's economy and tax base. Both he and Pugliese talked about the potential for Jordan Cove to bring stability to local drilling activity levels due to decades-long contracts Pembina hopes to finalize with LNG importers.
Pugliese said she also talked about the ability of natural gas exports to help raise people out of poverty in other countries, bolster U.S. allies and free people from Russian control over natural gas exports.
"And then I talked about the environment being incredibly important, especially as a mom raising my children in Mesa County," she said.
She said she is working to ensure air and water are clean for her family and constituents. At the same time, she said, being able to export natural gas will help countries like China clean up their air.
Pembina said in a news release Tuesday that it was pleased with the level of support at a FERC meeting in Myrtle Creek, Oregon, that day. It also said it has obtained easement agreements covering 82 percent of the private lands on the pipeline route. FERC turned down a previous Jordan Cove application in good part due to concerns about landowners facing possible condemnation along the pipeline route.
Project opponents say that the percentage of actual landowners who have signed easements is significantly less than the percentage by miles.
"We believe there are 90 to 95 landowners who have not signed agreements," said opponent Stacey McLaughlin, one of those on the pipeline route.
Pembina spokesman Paul Vogel said the opposition's numbers are "off the mark," and Pembina will be filing its latest easement numbers with FERC July 5.
While on the other side of the Jordan Cove issue from Jankovsky, McLaughlin shared the concern about the format of this week's FERC events, lamenting the fact that people can't hear each other's comments.
"If you want to know what was said you'll have to wait for FERC to post the transcripts and then have to decipher what is written down. You certainly won't hear the intense emotion and sadness in my voice when you are reading a transcript versus witnessing me appeal to FERC for the sanctity of my land and how the threat of eminent domain is affecting our family," she said.
FERC spokesperson Tamara Young-Allen said it has been using the arrangement for several years now because it's an effective way for more people to comment. This includes multiple people being able to comment at once, each in private but with a transcriber present so the comments will become public record. She said that previously FERC would hold meetings in which people would wait for hours and then not be able to comment because FERC had rented the room and run out of time.
"We would get a lot of angry people about that," she said.
She said more than 200 people showed up for the first event this week, in Coos Bay. She didn't have attendance numbers for Tuesday's event, and Wednesday's continued into the evening.
McLaughlin called FERC's justification for the format of the events "a total ruse."
"FERC is uncomfortable with being held responsible and they don't want the discontent to be made so public. They have created a process that hides any criticism or concern about the project and quiets the voices of inquiry who want accountability. It is a travesty to the due process proceedings they are tasked with conducting," she said.