A case study on the fight over LNG in Clatsop County details how activists went beyond environmental concerns and used the potential threat to tourism and fears about earthquakes and tsunamis to help build public opposition.
Two liquefied natural gas projects — at Bradwood Landing east of Astoria and on the Skipanon Peninsula in Warrenton — dominated political debate on the North Coast for more than a decade.
The project at Bradwood Landing sputtered after the developer, NorthernStar Natural Gas Inc., filed for bankruptcy in 2010. Oregon LNG withdrew from a $6 billion export terminal and pipeline project in Warrenton in 2016 after financing and regulatory obstacles.
The case study, prepared by researchers at the University of Alaska, the University of Delaware, Oregon State University and the State University of New York, looked at how activists opposed to LNG helped turn public opinion against the projects.
“LNG opponents gained early momentum over supporters by countering economic arguments in support of the proposed facilities. By framing LNG as a threat to the future of Clatsop County’s budding tourist economy, opponents seemed more in tune with the existing local community than LNG supporters, who envisioned a return to an industrial past,” the case study concluded.
“Opponents then capitalized on larger national and regional concerns — specifically related to terrorism and later to the potential impacts of future earthquakes and tsunamis — to align concerns about LNG to salient public issues.”
Activists partnered with Columbia Riverkeeper, an environmental nonprofit that provided important technical, organizing and legal expertise, and targeted local elected officials who supported the projects for defeat at the ballot box.
“As established local leaders began losing elections to LNG opponents, the opposition could then count on local decisions to turn in their favor,” researchers found.
The case study, funded in part by Oregon Sea Grant and published in January by the University of California Press, was based on local news articles, letters to the editor, transcripts of public hearings and interviews with nearly two dozen people involved in the LNG debate.
Researchers said concepts from social movements like the one against LNG in Clatsop County can help untangle arguments and strategies in other communities on the front lines of energy policy debates.
“I think the opponents in the Clatsop County case were quite effective in pushing forward a frame that wasn’t just about environment,” said Hilary Boudet, an associate professor in the sociology program at Oregon State, who was one of the authors. “It was, too, but it was also about potential economic impacts if the facility were to be built.”
The case study described the majority of local opponents to LNG as retired, including many with experience in political engagement. Opponents also had a well-organized communication network.
After Oregon LNG withdrew from the Warrenton project, some local supporters blamed retirees resistant to development for costing the county jobs and an economic boost. But activists celebrated it as a victory for local grassroots organizing against wealthy corporate interests.
“They’re looking at their own bank accounts and they’re not doing it for community welfare or longevity or anything like that,” said Laurie Caplan, who was one of the leaders of Columbia Pacific Common Sense, which formed to fight LNG. “They’re doing it to make a killing and then they’ll go on to the next project and make a killing there. That’s a whole different outlook.”
Researchers believe that given the potential risks and benefits of massive energy projects, conflicts are unlikely to disappear.
The proposed Jordan Cove LNG terminal and pipeline project at Coos Bay, for example, has divided residents and business interests as it moves through the regulatory process.
Social movements against environmental regulations are also taking shape in Oregon and across the nation in the debate over climate change. #TimberUnity, with seed money from the owner of Stimson Lumber Co., has rapidly built a grassroots following in rural parts of the state in response to cap-and-trade legislation in Salem.
Caplan said the political climate today is different than during the LNG battle.
“I think it would be a different type of battle because it’s almost being like you’re anti-American or un-American and that was never the issue, but I think it would be now,” she said. “And that changes what people are willing and able to speak up for. It’s just difficult.
“It’s harder if you think your connection with your friends and neighbors and family are at stake. Almost everybody I know has a family member who is totally opposed politically and it is really painful.”