The Fire Next Time: Coos Bay’s LNG plan

Wim de Vriend_thb

by Wim de Vriend

The recent glad tidings of “significant regulatory progress” for Jordan Cove’s proposed LNG export terminal in Coos Bay need to be taken with a sizable grain of salt.  All that Jordan Cove’s “major milestone” amounted to was its filing of a formal application for approval with FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has authority over the siting of LNG terminals.  It will take FERC at least a year to study all aspects of the project, after which it will rule on the application.  And besides FERC’s approval, several others will still be needed, including for the 230-mile pipeline to feed the terminal, from both Coos and Douglas counties.  Up in Astoria, Clatsop County has denied a pipeline approval for the only other LNG export terminal proposed on the West Coast.  No doubt this met with approval from the local landowners whose properties would be taken by eminent domain, for the benefit of a single gas merchant.

Clearly, the fate of Jordan Cove’s LNG export plan will be determined by economics as well as politics.  Powerful forces are at work, both for and against a development whose only reason for coming to Coos Bay – despite the loud hurrahs of its local supporters – was that nobody else wanted it.  The purpose of Jordan Cove’s first plan in 2005 had been to import LNG and send it as gas to California.  Californians wanted the gas but not the terminal, not even an offshore one.  That included the people in Eureka, a northern California port very similar to Coos Bay.  And so, long after its import plan had lost its raison d’être due to the drastic changes in the domestic gas market, and after having promised not to do so, Jordan Cove turned its Coos Bay plan into an export plan.  That’s because the company knew that, import or export, it would still not be welcome any place else.

Before I describe a couple of recent events to illustrate the Coos Bay community’s deep division over this issue, I may as well confess that I’m an LNG opponent myself.  I can almost hear the gasps: What?  This guy writes conservative stuff, and he’s against progress!  He’s against free enterprise!  He’s against JOBS!  Actually, Jordan Cove stands for none of those things, so please let me explain.

Coos Bay’s dogged quest for industry

To its great detriment, Coos Bay has long suffered from leadership that is as far off the wall as the town is off the beaten track.   Unlike every other place on the coast, it continues to be led by deluded fanatics who believe in the feasibility of restoring the Detroit of the Oregon coast to its former glory as a busy port and an industrial center.  These people still believe – against four decades of evidence – that Coos Bay’s vanished lumber mills can as yet be replaced by other kinds of factories that will pay the wages and benefits common during its golden years.  At the center of their fantasies is the Coos Bay harbor, which they worship as “our greatest, multi-billion-dollar asset”, and “the best deep water port between San Francisco and Seattle”.  One day its “unlimited potential” will as yet turn Coos Bay into “The Manhattan of the Pacific.”  It has never sunk in that the only reason big mills were built and ships came to Coos Bay was the availability of an abundant local resource: wood.  The lumber ships arrived empty, never bringing anything, because the area had a small population and its geography – its remoteness and the impossibility of building efficient connections through the Coast Range – made imports and exports of other than local products impractical.  Multiple, taxpayer-funded studies even said so.  Despite all that, Coos Bay’s leaders continued to act on their quaint beliefs, often with the ruthlessness of true believers.  Their methods were well-described by the slogan once posted over the entrance to one of the Soviet Union’s gulags: “With an Iron Fist, We Will lead Humanity to Happiness.”

In their long but futile quest, Coos Bay’s central planners have, for nearly four decades, tried to site heavy industries on the same sandy strip of land where the Jordan Cove plant is to be built.  This land, a former sand shoal which grew into a peninsula separating the bay from the ocean, is known as the North Spit; and the way the seagull flies, it’s less than half a mile west of the twin cities of North Bend and Coos Bay.  Given the prevailing western winds, whatever airborne pollution is created on the Spit will find its way into the homes of a majority of Coos County’s residents.  And there can be no doubt that the perennially returning announcements of (never realized) industrial plans for the North Spit have discouraged many people from settling in Coos Bay.  Instead, many retired people with means, and younger ones with ideas and ambitions, settled in other towns up and down the coast.  All of those towns have benefited by seeing substantial growth.  Not Coos Bay.

During all those years our leaders have schemed and bullied and lied and spent to build the following on the Spit, and all for naught: a garbage-burning plant, a major fish processing facility, a coal export terminal (in 1980), a sea-floor mining project, a major fabricator of oil field equipment, a nickel smelter, a chromium smelter, a big pulp mill, a steel mill, a major container import facility, and in 2011 yet another coal export terminal, now also expired.  The only surviving industrial plan is Jordan Cove’s LNG export terminal; and it must be said that, in contrast with every other promoter, Jordan Cove has spent a lot of money on its dream.

The failures of all the other plans have invariably been blamed on hard-core local “environmentalists”, a label that is too easily attached to people who simply want to be left alone.  But the real causes of the chain of failures were two.  One, already mentioned, was the absence of attributes that would make Coos Bay attractive to industrial investors.  The other was the stupidity of its leadership, which has lavished hundreds of millions of dollars on boondoggles, industrial scams, penny-stock manipulators and shell game artists.  The 1980 coal export plan and the chromium smelter were stock market swindles.  Some plans that looked more respectable, like the pulp mill, the steel mill and the container terminal, merely used Coos Bay as a pawn to get corporate subsidies in some other town, where they really wanted to go; but clearly those shell games were enabled by the leadership’s belief system.  A few other ventures, not on the list above, that the Port did build, were run by promoters who creamed off all they could before skipping town and leaving the taxpayers with the bills.  Instead of learning from those debacles, the ecodevo mafia has now placed all its hopes on Jordan Cove.

Secret Meetings and Carpetbaggers

A couple of recent events may illustrate what’s tearing Coos Bay apart.  I had received an invitation to a public meeting about the LNG issue, to be held on Wednesday, April 10, but didn’t remember the time; I’m not very good about appointments and meetings.  That morning around 9, driving through downtown Coos Bay past the city-owned Chamber of Commerce building, I spotted a group of anti-LNG activists picketing a meeting that was being held inside.

Anti-LNG activists picketing

Anti-LNG activists picketing

So, as a Chamber member in good standing I decided to go in and see what was up, only to be told that the group was having a private assembly, and I must leave.  I briefly disputed that, but ended up leaving.  It turned out that this particular meeting had been called by a cabal that calls itself Boost Southwestern Oregon, since renamed B. S. Oregon by its opponents.  And there WAS a meeting I had been invited to, but that one was at noon.  The purpose of the earlier one was to prepare the message for the second meeting, the one for the common people.  And the whole thing was being orchestrated by a public relations carpetbagger from D.C., hired by Jordan Cove to create the appearance of local support for its LNG terminal.  The group in the Chamber building could certainly be described as hardcore ecodevo.  The president and the manager of the Chamber were there, along with port officials and local politicians.  There was also a retired longshoreman who has long been on a campaign of “build it and they will come”, meaning that the taxpayers need to spend tens of millions of dollars to build a brand-new shipping dock in CoosBay that will never pay for itself, but may provide a few hours of work for the ILWU.  And there was the president of the local union of electricians, who gave me the finger as I was leaving.  It didn’t offend me nearly as much as it amused me, and I do hope he cuts the power before doing that to his outlets.

Local union of electricians president flips Wim the bird

Local union of electricians president flips Wim the bird

It then became public that this same president of the electricians’ union had started a drive to persuade the central committee of the local Democrats to pass a pro-LNG resolution.  Several years ago that same central committee had passed a resolution against Jordan Cove’s LNG import plan, so what was being proposed was a complete reversal.  Whether it was built for importing or exporting, the project would have the same elements: A ship dock, a terminal with liquid gas storage tanks, a conversion unit to change gas into LNG or vice versa, and a pipeline to carry the gas, either to or from the terminal.

The WHEREAS-clauses in the resolution written by the electric finger contained lots of dubious statements.  Examples were predictions that Alaska and Hawaii will need natural gas from Jordan Cove’s plant.  The state of Alaska has lots of natural gas of its own, and even if getting it requires building pipelines, that will be cheaper than bringing in LNG by tanker.  As to Hawaii, it plans to bring in LNG inside refrigerated containers that travel on regular ships.

But of course the WHEREAS-clauses were heaviest on predictions of JOBS.  They predicted “an average of 1,750 construction jobs over 42 months,” with brief peaks when that number would double.  No doubt that would be a nice boost for some local businesses including my own, since I have a restaurant, but the aftermath of that huge but short-lived construction boom might not be so pretty.  In any case, once it was done the permanent jobs projected by Jordan Cove were pathetic.  They added up to only 150, and most seemed to be connected with running the pipeline, not the terminal.  There were also vague predictions of additional hundreds of “indirect jobs” and “induced jobs”.

Whatever may be the truth – and we have some experience with lying by promoters of industrial proposals – any job gains will be more than wiped out by the job losses caused by the presence of the LNG terminal.

To begin with, while the pollution generated by an LNG terminal may not be comparable to that of a pulp mill or a smelter, the fear factor will have similar effects on people.  Like air or water pollution, fear affects one’s enjoyment of daily life.  It is thus likely that the trend for people to settle anywhere on the coast but in Coos Bay will continue or intensify.  I’ve even talked to current residents who plan to move away if Jordan Cove is approved.  Fewer people living in Coos Bay inevitably means fewer jobs.

Some of the jobs Jordan Cove promises to create are connected with moving LNG tankers in and out of the harbor, meaning work for pilots and tugboats.  The company has predicted 100 tankers a year will be loaded at the terminal.  Combining ships entering and leaving, that would mean 200 tanker transits a year, or more than one every other day.  Since the Congress has identified LNG tankers and terminals as potential terrorist targets, the Coast Guard will enforce a “safety zone” during every transit, which will prohibit all other vessel traffic in the lower bay.  And since LNG tanker movements are not announced, also for safety reasons, this is going to cause huge inconveniences for fishermen, commercial as well as recreational.  Imagine, being unexpectedly blocked from crossing the bar to go on your long-awaited, one-day halibut season.  Commercial fishermen won’t put up with that for long; they will move to a different port.  If the safety zone enforcement also causes us to lose the 3 or 4 ocean freighters a month still visiting CoosBay, that could very well induce the federal government to quit dredging in the upper bay, thus making its few remaining shipping docks unusable.  That will bring more job losses, even if accompanied by howls of indignation from the clueless ecodevo- crowd.

Interestingly, at the Democrats’ meeting on May 21 some of the arguments against the electricians’ union’s resolution were made by Bill McCaffree, an electrician whose wife,  Jody McCaffree, is the area’s leading anti-LNG crusader.  And in the end, the Democrats’ Central Committee decided to table it.  They also tabled a proposal to reconsider the anti-LNG resolution they had passed years before.  On balance, it was a solid win for the anti-LNG crowd.

Consider the Geology

In the meantime, everyone with a sense of responsibility should consider that the disastrous offshore Japanese earthquake of March 2011 is certain to be replicated off the southern Oregon coast, followed by an equally disastrous tsunami.  Even though nobody knows when, the odds of these things happening within the next fifty years have been rated extremely high: 37%.  Three years before their big quake, some Japanese had raised concern about the ability of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants to withstand a tsunami of 33 feet.  But the plant’s officials did not take such a risk seriously, since it had a 19 ft seawall.  When the earthquake hit, it was followed by a 43 – 49 ft tsunami, which destroyed the power for the reactors’ cooling system pumps.  Lacking cooling water, the infamous meltdown followed.  It is clear that the height of tsunamis depends on local topography; in some parts of the Japanese coast this one reached 133 feet.

An LNG plant is not a nuclear plant.  But like a nuclear plant it needs power.  Without power, and after having been lowered or raised or tilted by a 9-point earthquake on the glorified sand shoal on which it is to be built, Jordan Cove’s terminal is at risk of losing massive amounts of LNG.  Exposed to the atmosphere and to the water in the bay, this liquid will quickly turn into gas, and become a moving fireball which within 30 seconds can cause second-degree burns on exposed human skin a mile away.  Given the right conditions – dry fall weather with the northwestern winds that blow that time of year – the entire Coos Bay/North Bend peninsula could be incinerated.  Local firefighting and emergency systems, including the terminal’s firefighters, would be utterly inadequate, and it is the height of folly to claim, as one firefighter did to me, that we would “get help from as far away as San Francisco.”  After the earthquake we’d be lucky to have any passable roads and bridges left in Coos County, let alone all the way up from San Francisco.

Fire next time_3

Jordon Cove LNG Hazard Zones


Wim de Vriend is the author of “The JOB Messiahs – how government destroys our prosperity and our freedoms to create jobs.”  A hefty tome written in an entertaining style, the JOB Messiahs includes hundreds of historical photographs and thousands of footnotes.  The book chronicles the disastrous effects on the CoosBay area of government-directed central planning to “create jobs”.  Its conclusion is that economic development schemes don’t work, and worse: that in Coos County they have been counterproductive, making it the only part of western Oregon whose economy has declined for decades, thanks to the economic development experts . . . the JOB Messiahs.

“The JOB Messiahs” (2nd, updated edition) retails for $35, although it is worth a great deal more.  The book can be ordered by contacting Wim at 541-267-6177 or at [email protected].

Wim de Vriend

Wim de Vriend