Editor's note: This series originally published May 22. Environment reporter Bellamy Pailthorp was in Tacoma on Tuesday covering the latest developments, including an anti-LNG march and a public hearing related to permits for the proposed project. Listen to her coverage on All Things Considered today and Morning Edition tomorrow, and revisit previous coverage (updates at the bottom of this post).
Puget Sound Energy CEO Kimberly Harris wasn’t surprised to receive a call from Gov. Jay Inslee the afternoon of May 8. But she was surprised to hear what he had to say.
Inslee, who is running for president on a climate-change platform, had just signed his hallmark “100 percent clean energy” legislation — touted as the strongest in the nation. PSE spokesman Andy Wappler said his company was “at the table every step of the way” for that effort, which promises utilities will move away from greenhouse gas emissions entirely by 2045.
“We thought we were getting a thank-you call from the governor,” Wappler said. “We weren’t. We were getting a flip-flop.”
The call preceded an unexpected about-face from Inslee, regarding his stance on liquefied natural gas. The governor withdrew his support for a long-debated LNG project currently under construction at the Port of Tacoma, as well as a methanol plant in Kalama that was once proposed for Tacoma. PSE says the South Sound project aims to provide reliable, clean fuel for maritime vessels while also providing backup energy resources for thousands of utility customers across Western Washington.
Inslee previously supported LNG as a so-called bridge fuel — a resource that’s cleaner to burn than coal or oil, as energy infrastructure works toward more renewable sources. But people disagree on whether natural gas is actually cleaner. And they’re split on whether now is the time to invest in natural gas infrastructure.
Supporters say relying on natural gas now is better than maintaining status quo — burning dirtier fossil fuels. Opponents say the way in which natural gas is extracted, fracking, harms water supplies and can pollute the air at a more damaging rate.
“Obviously the governor has a strong environmental record,” said Bill Sterud, Tribal Council chairman for the Puyallup Tribe of Indians. “He’s worried about his grandchildren being able to have a good life, a healthy life.”
The tribe is staunchly against the project, which is already halfway done and awaits a construction permit from the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. Tribal leaders say the project is dangerous and violates Puyallup treaty rights. They also stress the life cycle of the project is just as dirty — if not more — than other fossil fuels, arguing that fracked gas leaks at the source creating more harmful greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.
“To say that this is a cleaner fuel is not true,” said Annette Bryan, a member of the Puyallup Tribal Council. She says she’s pleased the governor and his staff took a hard look at the science presented by the tribe. “If people look at the science and it changes their mind, then they’ve done the right thing.”
But officials with PSE and TOTE Maritime — the company that plans to use the LNG fuel for its vessels — say the governor’s pivot doesn’t change what they believe to be sound science in their favor.
“Gov. Inslee’s statement on LNG doesn’t change the science on LNG that clearly states our transition to LNG will reduce greenhouse gases and improve local air quality,” said Alex Hofeling, vice president and general manager of TOTE’s Alaska operations. “So his statement also doesn’t change the important work our regulators do and, most important, it doesn’t change our commitment to this project.”
Their commitment stems from the idea that transitioning away from coal and oil now is a step in the right direction.
“Moving to natural gas is the single best thing we can do today to have cleaner shipping fuels,” said Wappler, the PSE spokesman. “Someday there might be alternatives. There aren’t today.”
PSE also underscores its commitment to responsible sourcing of natural gas — another polarizing argument in the ongoing debate over whose science is right.
The utility says all of its natural gas will be sourced from British Columbia, where oversight of gas production is more strictly regulated, with the aim of reducing methane leaks and lowering net emissions of greenhouse gases.
Tarika Powell, a researcher with Seattle-based Sightline Institute, says that’s misleading. She says the idea of cleaner natural gas production in Canada is based on unreliable, industry-reported data. And, she argues, gas coming from Canada is commingled once it enters the utility’s pipeline. “You can’t actually tell what the source of it is, where it actually came from once it gets into the pipelines,” Powell said.
Still, PSE insists commingling is a non-factor for the facility.
Bryan, the Tribal Council member, says it doesn’t matter where the gas is produced — the process still has negative impacts on the global environment and indigenous communities wherever it’s sourced.
“Just because it’s being fracked in Canada doesn’t make it any cleaner here. The impacts are greater than just the site,” she said. “This project hurts people. And it hurts communities. It’s an environmental injustice.”
Powell says the “deceptive solution” of natural gas dates back to the energy crisis of the 1970s. Back then, she says, natural gas made sense as a bridge fuel, when we knew less about it and had a several-decade window to make a meaningful transition toward renewable energy. That window has significantly shrunk, she stressed.
“The science is showing that the window to have that several-decade bridge has passed already,” Powell said, noting that the International Panel on Climate Change says that window is only about 12 years. “It would be a mistake to make a large-scale infrastructure shift to natural gas.”
During a recent site visit, PSE and TOTE Maritime officials stressed that changing the rules midstream would drive innovation away from the Port of Tacoma.
“If we change the rules, which the governor tried to do last week, we’re telling people (to) innovate elsewhere,” Wappler said. “Stopping this today, stopping LNG now, is endorsing oil for decades to come.”
Opponents — some of whom have faced arrest for protests at the site — continue to push back, though they are nearly out of options.
Powell, with Sightline, says PSE has continued building at its own risk. “Once you get past the permitting stage,” she said, “then your options are in the court of law.”
And members of the Puyallup tribe haven’t ruled out those options.
In the meantime, the project moves forward. Bryan says tribal leaders are puzzled by the rate at which construction has carried on despite the pending permitting, but she says PSE knew what was at stake when it started building — and the fight isn’t over.
“We’ll continue to hope people do the right thing,” Bryan said. “And if not, we’ll do whatever it takes.”
Wappler acknowledged the utility would shut down the project if it was somehow out of compliance. But officials don’t anticipate that will happen — their confidence made clear by the growing footprint visible from Interstate 5.
“At this point, we expect this project to operate into the foreseeable future,” Wappler said.
UPDATE, Aug. 28, 10:30 a.m.:
On Tuesday, Aug. 27, about 300 people turned out to respond publicly to the controversial liquefied natural gas facility that’s being built in the tideflats. The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency has issued a preliminary determination indicating that it plans to issue a permit, allowing completion of the project.
Community activists from around region voiced their concerns Tuesday, urging the agency to reconsider. Elaine Hickman is with the Seattle-based Faith Action Climate Team. Along with dozens of others, she argued that the "fracked gas" used in the facility will produce at least as much climate pollution as coal — and that the Puyallup Tribe, whose lands it’s being built on, was not properly consulted. She told the agency it's not too late to change their mind, like Gov. Jay Inslee did earlier this year.
“I believe you have the political cover to reject this air quality permit. You haven’t had the will to do it for the last permits,” she said, to applause. “So, this fight is not over no matter what happens. And it has to be stopped.”
Hickman said state Attorney General Bob Ferguson would be another ally. Others said they would lobby the Clean Air Agency's board members. But about a quarter of the people testifying said they want the project to move forward. Public comments will be accepted, in writing, through Sept. 9.
Editor’s note: Puget Sound Energy and TOTE Maritime have been among KNKX's financial supporters. Funders do not have any influence over our news coverage.