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Ambre Energy vs. the State of Oregon

If the state of Oregon isn’t going to allow industry involving certain fossil fuels, wouldn’t it be better—and more honest —to just say no?

Instead, Gov. Kitzhaber and his hand-picked director of the Department of State Lands (DSL)—with help from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ)— have once again wasted thousands of hours of state agency manpower and caused private industry to spend millions in a futile attempt to gain state permits.

The DSL’s Aug. 18 denial of Ambre Energy’s application for a removal/fill permit to construct a barge-loading dock between two already-existing industrial docks at the Port of Morrow in Eastern Oregon, followed a precedent-setting series of delays, extended public hearings, and demands for information tied up in an unwieldy federal process.

Ultimately, the DSL declined to wait for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ process, which includes consultation with tribal governments, and went directly to the Yakama and Umatilla tribes. The DSL then denied the fill/removal permit concluding that Ambre’s $242 million Morrow Pacific project is “not consistent with the protection, conservation and best use of the state’s water resources, and that the applicant did not provide sufficient analysis of alternatives that would avoid construction of a new dock and impacts on tribal fisheries.”

In an interview in The Clatskanie Chief in May, Morrow Pacific CEO Clark Moseley pointed out that the fishing sites identified by the tribes in their affidavits to the DSL are not within the project area, which is already industrial. What’s more, that area could not have been a traditional tribal fishing site because it was not under water until the John Day Dam was built.

The reason the DSL spent two-and-a-half years reviewing a permit it normally acts upon in 60 to 90 days, is because this project involved coal— the current public enemy number-one for Gov. Kitzhaber’s environmentalist allies.

While DSL Director Mary Abrams—who reports directly to the State Land Board comprised of Kitzhaber, Secretary of State Kate Brown, and State Treasurer Ted Wheeler—claimed the agency was taking a fair and independent look at the project, her boss was loudly proclaiming his opposition to the transport of coal through Oregon.

After two years of stating repeatedly that it would not require section 401 certification under the federal Clean Water Act because the Corps. was studying the project under the federal Rivers and Harbors Act, the DEQ did an unprecedented 180-degree about-face, and informed Ambre Energy/Morrow Pacific that it would require the 401 certification, adding another significant delay.

Industrial projects “should be held to Oregon’s high standards, but the process must be fair, transparent
and orderly,” Morrow Pacific responded.

“We’re starting to see other (economic development) groups expressing concerns,” Moseley said. What is happening to Morrow Pacific “seems like a template for how to delay projects.”

Nor is it the first time. In 2010, NorthernStar Natural Gas halted its plans to build a $650 million liquefied natural gas terminal on the Lower Columbia River after spending an estimated $50 million over several years in a stymied permitting process.

If Ambre decides to appeal the DSL ruling, and if it were to receive the other necessary state and federal permits, the Morrow Pacific project would see coal transported by rail from the Powder River basin in southeastern Montana and northeastern Wyoming to the Port of Morrow at Boardman in Eastern Oregon. The coal would then be loaded into specially-designed enclosed barges and brought to the Port Westward industrial site dock near Clatskanie. There it would be transloaded to the holds of ships in a fully-enclosed system.

The Morrow Pacific project would add 25 new permanent jobs at both the Port of Morrow and Port Westward, located near small rural communities where 25 family-wage, benefit-paying jobs really mean something. Additionally, it would bring hundreds of indirect jobs, thousands of construction jobs—including the building of the special multi-million-dollar barges at Portland shipyards—and millions
of property tax dollars for schools, fire departments, law enforcement, and other local government services.

But, it’s coal-bound for energy-hungry Asian countries. Never mind that trains full of coal pass down the Columbia River Gorge and up the I-5 corridor daily to Canadian export facilities.

This is not the first time the current governor of Oregon has decided that he and his allies know best, despite what the majority of Oregonians may think. Nor is it the first time he has presided over the wasting of millions.

We hear a lot from the environmentalist lobby, the governor, and his appointees about the ethics of industry. Ethical conduct should be a two-way street, and the voters should enforce it.

An earlier version of this story was originally published in the U-Choose Education Bulletin.

Featured image: Shutterstock.com

Deborah Steele Hazen

Deborah Steele Hazen is a fifth generation Oregonian with over 40 years’ experience reporting on politics and economic development issues.

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