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On the Fence

by Tony Lystra
The Daily News, December 2, 2007

Oregon Congressman David Wu doesn't have an official opinion on whether NorthernStar Natural Gas should be allowed to build a liquefied natural gas import terminal on the lower Columbia River.

Neither does Washington Sen. Patty Murray, Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski or, apparently, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire.

In fact, more than a year after NorthernStar submitted federal applications to build the terminal, few elected state and federal officials who represent the area have taken a stand.

Critics say there's a lot at stake. They worry security measures surrounding the plant could clog shipping traffic. Dredging the river for the deep-draft vessels could harm salmon, they say. And, they say, shipping and storing the fuel would create unnecessary safety risks.

With so much potential risk, the project's opponents said last week that the politicians need to get off the fence.

"I think it's time to say whether you're for or against it," said state Rep. Dean Takko, D-Longview, who announced his opposition to the LNG plant earlier this year with fellow 19th District legislators, Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, and state Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond.

"There's enough information out there. You should be able to come up with an opinion," Takko said.

Brent Foster, of the environmental group Columbia Riverkeeper, said LNG firms are "spending millions of dollars to steamroll this process."

"This is exactly the time when you need your elected leaders to stand up," he said.

Washington Congressman Brian Baird spoke out against the terminal earlier this year. But critics speculate other officials are steering clear of the issue partly because the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, a presidentially appointed panel based in Washington, D.C., is in charge of approving LNG facilities. Congress has no say, and Oregon and Washington governors and legislators have little power over the decision.

Still, with the project's fate largely in the hands of a distant federal agency, opponents say they're counting on state and federal representatives to stand up for their constituents.

"We definitely feel like we're swimming upstream," said Gayle Kiser, a spokeswoman for the Cowlitz County opposition group Landowners and Citizens for a Safe Community. "We're fighting the current here."

Kiser said she is "surprised" that more lawmakers haven't taken a position.

"It's really coming to a boil," she said. "There are a lot of people asking questions and they don't have answers to them."

Wu's office said last week that the congressman wants to leave the matter up to local communities.

"It's their decision," a spokeswoman said.

Cantwell's office said the senator doesn't want to issue an opinion until FERC completes its final environmental assessment for the project, which is expected next year. She said the senator remains concerned about the project's safety and its impacts on the environment.

Asked if Washington Sen. Patty Murray plans to issue a statement supporting or opposing the terminal, a spokeswoman said, "At this point, no."

"Right now, we're talking to everybody and we want to make sure everybody's views are brought to the table for FERC," the spokeswoman said.

And a spokesman for Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden didn't know Wyden's stance on the issue. "Off the top of my head, I don't have an exact answer for you," he said last week. Wyden's office didn't contact the paper again.

Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Critics say getting a perspective from Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire's office has been fruitless and frustrating.

Kiser said one of the governor's representatives attended a lunch meeting of LNG opponents at her house. But, she said, "We have unsuccessfully petitioned for a meeting with her."

Foster, of Columbia Riverkeeper, said governors of other states have taken firmer positions. "Even people like (now former Massachusetts) Gov. Mitt Romney have taken a leadership role in fighting LNG," Foster said. "It is particularly disappointing that Gov. Gregoire has not done more to help."

Gregoire's office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Mike Carrier, the natural resource policy director for Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, said last week that the governor "has not taken a position for or against the siting of the Bradwood Landing terminal or any terminal."

But, Carrier said, Kulongoski "has not closed the door to any kind of energy development."

Last week, the governor's office released a Nov. 16 memo, sent from Carrier to state officials, outlining Kulongoski's position on LNG and bemoaning the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which took the authority to site LNG terminals away from the states and handed it to FERC.

Kulongoski clearly hasn't ruled LNG out. "The governor does not favor a statewide, categorical exclusion of LNG terminals for Oregon," the memo said.

It also said "Liquified Natural Gas must be considered in the context of diversifying and shoring up energy supplies for Oregon and the Pacific Northwest and the potential for LNG to help reduce over-reliance on other sources of energy, especially coal and hydropower, which have other environmental impacts."

The memo called on state agencies to "fully assert Oregon's concerns and interests" to FERC.

NorthernStar spokesman Joe Desmond said elected officials are waiting to speak up until more facts come to light and "the process has had an opportunity to play itself out."

"We actually view that as very positive," he said. "That's the responsible, appropriate approach on any sort of complex issue that involves a lot of technical and environmental review."

But the Columbia County Democratic Central Committee called on Kulongoski as well as state and federal lawmakers last week to "stop all LNG import terminal development on the Columbia River" until a number of questions are resolved. The committee cited more than a half dozen potential problems, including that the terminal could disrupt river traffic, overburden emergency agencies and create air pollution.

Jolene Jonas, the committee's chairwoman, said the move was designed to push lawmakers into taking a position on NorthernStar's plans.

"I'm not saying they've been lazy about it," Jonas said. "I think some of them want to play it safe ... just because they don't want to offend on divisive issues."

Tony Lystra
On the Fence
The Daily News, December 2, 2007

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