Port Westward plan draws cautious welcome plus strong opposition

Port Westward LNG LLC is planning to submit pre-filing paperwork to federal energy regulators next week - kicking off the extensive permitting process required to build a liquefied natural gas receiving terminal at a site a few miles north of Clatskanie.

"At that point in time you become official, that's when the whole process starts," said the company's chief executive officer, Spiro Vassilopoulos. The energy company hopes to build an LNG receiving terminal and regasification facility in Columbia County, much like the facility that Calpine Corp. has proposed building in Warrenton.

As his company enters the permitting stage, which can take a couple of years, Vassilopoulos said that the opinions of local residents will be of paramount importance.

"At the end of the day, the most significant variable in this equation is local acceptance. If it is not accepted locally, it will not be built," he said. "You cannot go forward in a project as if it's a war. We're trying to do something constructive here. If you get into a war with the local folks who don't want it in their backyard, it won't work."

However, reaction so far is mixed.

"We're interested, we're certainly in favor of economic development and job creation. We're also very cautious about any public safety issues," said Columbia County Commissioner Tony Hyde. The commission hasn't received a formal proposal, and so hasn't issued any official opinions or decisions.

As for public opinion, "There's always a group out there that thinks it's a terrible idea, but (from) what I've seen generally in Clatskanie, they're not that cold to it," Hyde said.

'Change the river'

But there are groups vehemently against the idea.

"We oppose them completely," said Gary Soderstrom, president of the Columbia River Fishermen's Protective Union and Clatskanie resident. "It would change the whole nature of the Columbia River."

Soderstrom said that the cost of security to escort tankers up the river would burden taxpayers, and exclusion zones around the tankers, where boats aren't allowed, could effectively shut down the river.

Fellow fisherman and fifth-generation Clatskanie resident Bruce Jolna said that the location for a proposed dock at Port Westward would interfere with fishing grounds. Both men questioned how many local jobs the plant would create.

"Fishermen aren't against people bringing jobs in here, we just don't want to give up what we've got for very few jobs," Soderstrom said. He said that there are others in Clatskanie who oppose the project, and that a lot of people are only recently finding out about LNG and the terminal proposal.

Vassilopoulos said that his company plans to work with area fishermen.

"We have promised them that we will work diligently with them to address their concerns, and to minimize the impacts of a terminal on their fishing activities," he said. However Soderstrom and Jolna said that their calls to the company were not returned and e-mails came back undeliverable.

Organizing meetings

Tammy Maygra of Deer Island is involved with Save Our Columbia River, a group that is beginning to hold meetings to organize an opposition to the project.

"We're hoping that we can get public outcry, and get people rallied together," Maygra said. "When it deals with the Columbia River, it affects the whole state."

Vassilopoulos said he wasn't aware of what the group's arguments were, but that he would be happy to sit down and talk to the members if they wished.

He said that ultimately, the LNG terminal would bring multiple economic benefits to Columbia County.

"It's a matter of jobs, it's a matter of additions to the tax base, it's a matter of a steady 20-year fuel supply coming into the area, and ultimately, the multiplier affect it will have for the Pacific Northwest," Vassilopoulos said. "It will give businesses a chance to plan long-term and possibly relocate to the area."

'Not a horse race'

Calpine representatives have said that their main goal in proposing a terminal is to increase the supply of the natural gas for the West Coast, and that if another company is able to bring in the fuel and make Calpine's project unnecessary, that would be fine.

"This is not a horse race; at the same time, we're not going to sit on our hands and wait for others," Peter Hansen, Calpine's vice president of business development, has said previously. He noted that the other projects could run into unforeseen difficulties and not get built, so Calpine will continue with its plans.

Vassilopoulos said he didn't know if the region could support two LNG import terminals, and that such a decision would be up to the financial experts.

In the Port Westward proposal, tankers would travel approximately 40 miles up the Columbia River and deliver the super-cooled fuel to two 150-foot high tanks, each of which could hold more than 7 million cubic feet of the liquid. It would be heated up into the natural gas used for home heating and cooking and the operation of power plants, and put into a pipeline.

The gas could be used by the nearby PGE power plant, as well as two proposed natural gas-fired power plants and a proposed ethanol plant, and would also be piped into the main distribution system.

The Port Westward company has optioned 46 acres along the river, has entered into a purchase and sale agreement for an additional 145 acres, and is in negotiations with a property owner to buy the remaining 150 to 160 acres for the facility, Vassilopoulos said.

Multiple studies

Once the National Environmental Policy Act pre-filing application is sent to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which is the federal agency responsible for the siting of energy projects, the company will hire engineers, lawyers, market consultants, safety consultants, and many other consultants to start gathering the information it needs to file permits. Vassilopoulos said the company has already done multiple studies of the area to make sure that the project is feasible economically and could meet safety requirements.

When FERC receives the pre-filing paperwork, agency staff will launch an environmental review and ask for public comments, and will determine which issues the company needs to address in its formal application, said FERC spokeswoman Tamara Young-Allen.

Although there is a lawsuit in California over whether federal or state agencies have ultimate authority over the siting of LNG facilities, Vassilopoulos said his company will apply to the Oregon Energy Facility Siting Council as well. He added that he has also talked with about 40 other agencies that will play a role in the permitting process, including the U.S. Coast Guard.

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