InvestigateWest: Activists thwart fossil fuel projects

Environmentalists teamed with Native Americans, ranchers and even windsurfers to block nearly every effort over the past decade to export fossil fuels from the West Coast. And they claimed yet another major victory this month when a proposed coal-export terminal in Washington state was called off.

Against the odds, and even their own expectations, activists have fended off more than 20 proposals to use West Coast ports to expand the global fossil fuel trade – the carbon equivalent of five Keystone XL pipelines, according to the Seattle-based Sightline Institute.

Green groups succeeded in fighting fuel-export proposals along the Pacific coast because they enlisted non-traditional allies. They put a lot of calories into figuring out how coal and oil were set to be exported, and they enlisted the communities at risk to supplement the fight.

Government action to slash greenhouse gas emissions has fallen short in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, as documented last week in the opening story of InvestigateWest’s yearlong series, Getting to Zero: Decarbonizing Cascadia. But as opposition to climate action thwarted policymakers in Cascadia, its activists repeatedly triumphed.

A few significant energy-export proposals have been revived under the Trump and Trudeau administrations. (More on that in next month’s installment of Getting To Zero: Decarbonizing Cascadia.)

Still, that wave of earlier victories represents the region’s greatest contribution to climate action, according to KC Golden, a longtime policy leader who spent over a decade at Climate Solutions, a regional group headquartered in Seattle, who now sits on the board of the international activist group

“You can’t measure that on our emissions curve,” Golden said. “But it’s probably the single biggest thing that we did.”


The coalitions joined climate policy and environmental organizations with community groups. Crucially, they looked beyond policy measures designed to cut emissions, such as carbon trading and carbon taxes, and instead followed the fossil fuel shipments that impact communities — often marginalized communities — en route to warming the global climate. They went after the underground pipelines proposed to tunnel beneath farms and fields, and the trains rumbling through downtowns.

Regional factors also helped. Indian tribes and First Nations bands reasserted sovereign powers. And the political and economic makeup of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia eased the lift politically. Fossil fuel production makes up a small part of the region’s job base. Many politicians score with voters by opposing the likes of Big Oil.

The most important factor, though, was the sheer number of people that activists mobilized by reaching beyond their traditional alliances. In massive numbers, community members attended public hearings. Marched in protests. Spent nights and weekends at kitchen tables drafting pleas to government agencies.

“Clearly part of what is different about this campaign is the fairly extraordinary level of grassroots involvement,” said Becky Kelley, former president of the Washington Environmental Council.

This story of uncharacteristic environmental victories has its roots in the mid-2000s, when growing use of so-called “natural” gas spawned proposals to import liquefied natural gas through ports in Oregon and pipelines to move the fossil gas eastward — pipelines that take a lot of land, and much of it in solidly conservative expanses of the state.

Fracking turned that picture upside down. Cheaper domestic gas and oil, as well as surplus coal, spurred three new waves of export proposals: Facilities to take coal transported by rail; oil transported by rail and pipeline; and then – once again – gas from pipelines. This time the latter would carry gas westward for export.

Climate policy experts at Sightline, a key player in the greens’ movement, calculated that if all the proposals for coal exports went through, it would mean 50 to 60 trains per day traveling through the region.

Oil trains more than a mile long would block emergency vehicles and other traffic on a daily basis in towns between Washington and Wyoming. And in a derailment or collision, the trains could cause devastation on a fearsome scale.

By the middle of last decade, a fossil fuel tsunami seemed to be pointed at Cascadia and its ports. But by then, environmentalists had also built a coalition far stronger than their partnerships with each other — a regional infrastructure of activism whose importance to the greens’ success is hard to overstate.

“That’s a real lesson learned: To be successful on major campaigns you have got to work outside traditional alliances,” said Ross Macfarlane, then a key architect of the effort at Climate Solutions.

It began as a campaign called Power Past Coal, based on the projected dozens of coal trains per day. At first the activists thought industry’s momentum would be too much to counter. Macfarlane recalls the early days of the campaign as dark. Allies in the business world warned “that we were going to get creamed,” McFarlane said.

“And I wasn’t sure they were wrong,” he said. “In fact, I was pretty sure they were right.”

What turned it around was forging a broader coalition, said Beth Doglio, the Power Past Coal campaign’s co-director, who was elected to a Washington House of Representatives seat in 2016. “It was the combination of people wanting to turn the tide against climate change coupled with communities’ very visceral reactions to 60 trains a day coming through.”

Environmentalists looked at who might be affected by each project or proposal and reached out, often discovering natural allies who already had mobilized. Scouting far up the rail lines, they also found previously unlikely supporters, from politicians in decidedly conservative towns along the rail routes to a concerned researcher for the Montana Wheat & Barley Committee. Lots of folks worried about the effects of mile-long, traffic jam-inducing trains. Especially when they carried volatile oil.

They were far stronger together. Dedicated people at the grassroots level poured in their time and worked their community connections. Professionals at environmental nonprofits bolstered their case, providing expertise to, for example, challenge a company’s calculation about how much of a neighborhood would be decimated if an oil-bearing train exploded.

“It’s all about grassroots resistance to the fossil-fuel infrastructure,” said Doglio. “Legislators really can’t ignore the massive outcry in our communities around trying to stop these fossil fuel projects.”

Native peoples critical to success

First Nations and Native Americans have often been in the forefront and in a few cases provided the pivotal legal firepower that won the day.

Take, for example, the proposal to build the Gateway Pacific Terminal, about 10 miles from the Canada-U.S. border, to ship coal to China – a project that saw Montana ranchers and their Native American neighbors travel to Seattle to protest together in 2012.

So many people wanted to attend that hearing that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers moved the event from a community college to the convention center. More than 2,300 people showed up on that Dec. 14 along with the Northern Cheyenne, the Montana cowboys and their allies; more than 6,000 more attended other hearings for the project around the state.

In Seattle, opponents sang to the tune of “Deck the Halls”:

“We have lots of greener choices

Fa la la la la, la la la la

Stop the coal and

Raise our voices…”

The fatal blow for the Gateway Pacific coal terminal landed a few years later, when the Lummi Nation — an Indian tribe living just south of the U.S.-Canada border — won a legal fight to convince the Corps to reject the proposed 3,000-foot wharf and rail trestle. The Lummi cited the 1855 treaty under which they gave most of their traditional territory to the United States and were guaranteed the right to forever fish at their “usual and accustomed grounds and stations.”

Taking aim at the coal-export terminal, the Lummi submitted fish catch reports dating back to the ’70s showing that Lummi fishermen had long been landing crab, salmon, halibut, herring and cod in the waters around where the marine terminal was to be sited. As a sovereign native nation, the Lummi could expect the federal government to give their position serious consideration.

And they won. In 2016, the Army Corps declined the permit application.

In her decision, Michelle Walker, chief of the Army Corps’ regional regulatory branch, recognized not only the Lummi’s sovereign rights but also their distinct culture. “It is also important to note the Cherry Point area is known to the Lummi as Xwe’chi’eXen, which is part of a larger traditional cultural property,” she wrote. Fishing was not just a source of sustenance and wealth, wrote Walker, but also “important to the Lummi Schelangen (Way of Life).”

Global impact

Cascadia’s activism has had global impact, contributing to a downgrading of fossil fuel industries’ moral standing and access to capital worldwide. But for all of the activists’ victories, it might be a stretch to say they have the fossil-fuel industry on the run. In fact, the industry continues to hold sway in important ways throughout Cascadia.

Trains regularly carry highly flammable Bakken crude oil through the Columbia River Gorge at the Washington-Oregon border. One derailed in June 2016 at a small Oregon town, sending up a fireball, closing a 23-mile stretch of Interstate 84 for half a day and evacuating a school and neighborhood. Another oil-bearing train derailed last month north of Bellingham, Washington.

Oil-bearing trains bisect towns from Oregon to near the Canadian border. Many move through a century-old tunnel that runs beneath downtown Seattle. There, an explosion could easily result in massive evacuations and quite possibly more serious harm.

Washington’s refineries may get access to even more oil because of the expansion of the TransMountain pipeline — one of three large fossil fuel export projects underway today in British Columbia.

Activists scared TransMountain’s longtime owner, Kinder Morgan, off its expansion project only to see it purchased by Canada’s federal government in 2018. It would nearly triple the capacity of a pipeline that delivers diluted bitumen, the heaviest form of crude oil, from Canada’s tar sands in Alberta to just outside Vancouver, B.C. It was justified to ship petroleum to China and other Asian countries by tanker, but also sends diluted bitumen to Washington refineries via barge and pipeline.

While the TransMountain pipeline moved forward against objections from British Columbia, the federal government actively courted another megaproject under construction: the LNG Canada gas export terminal in Kitimat and the associated Coastal GasLink gas pipeline bringing fracked gas to Kitimat from Northeast BC.

The Sightline Institute’s Eric de Place said this week that environmentalists trying to maintain the activists’ “thin green line” against fossil fuel exports from the West Coast continue to monitor fossil-fuel export proposals north and south of the border, including the Jordan Cove LNG terminal proposed for coastal Oregon.

Still, he said the activists’ efforts have been a “smash hit,” putting fuel-export proponents back on their heels. “I thought when we started out… that we would not win any of the fights, and as it turned out we came close to running the tables,” de Place said. “We established that fossil fuels do not have a safe harbor in the Northwest.”


Peter Fairley contributed to this report. This story was funded in part through a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.


Getting to Zero: Decarbonizing Cascadia is a year-long project by nonprofit news organizations in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. Led by Seattle-based InvestigateWest, the project also will include contributions from The Tyee in Vancouver, BC; national news site; in Washington; and Jefferson Public Radio in Oregon. Future stories will be available here. If you’d like to be notified when stories in this series are published, email [email protected] with the subject line “subscribe.”