On July 27, just two days after TC Energy’s Columbia Gas Transmission pipeline exploded in Strasburg, Virginia, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission delayed its vote to approve the energy giant’s Gas Transmission Northwest Xpress pipeline expansion project. The Strasburg explosion is just one in a long line of dangerous pipeline failures in TC Energy’s portfolio, with the GTN expansion threatening safety risks and environmental damage even as the states of Washington and Oregon move to reduce their carbon footprints. The project has been opposed by environmental justice groups and activists, tribal governments, and even the Attorneys General of Washington, Oregon and California. What is it about the GTN expansion that has united such a diverse spread of opposition?
Surprisingly, the GTN pipeline expansion does not serve any real market need or demand. Despite TC Energy’s claims that the project is needed to meet rising demand in the states it services — Idaho, California, Washington, and Oregon — GTN already exceeds demand in three out of four of these markets. California’s natural gas market is declining. The Washington State Building Code Council has adopted rules banning natural gas heat pumps in new construction, though the rules have been delayed following a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling against the city of Berkeley, California. All three states are actively moving to advance zero-emission policies over the coming decades. While these regulations are far from enough to curb the climate crisis overall, they signal that TC Energy’s goal is to manufacture, rather than serve, demands for increased natural gas flow. The regional gas market is only growing in the minds of TC Energy’s shareholders.
The energy giant’s plan to accomplish this hinges on increasing the GTN pipeline’s flow with an additional 150 million cubic feet of gas per day. Increased flow is correlated with more frequent and dangerous leaks, though TC Energy’s proposal includes neither repairs nor updates to GTN’s 61-year-old pipes. Instead, the expansion will install new turbines and software updates at three compression stations along the pipeline route. Each of these compressor stations is located in or near residential areas, with the Athol station in particular situated in the middle of a residential neighborhood just a few miles from the popular Silverwood Theme Park and its 800,000 seasonal visitors. Research on compressor stations’ public health impact paints a grim picture, demonstrating higher rates of mortality and negative health outcomes for those living nearby. These harms scale proportionally with increased emissions, a natural result of TC Energy’s proposed expansion.
Dangers of fracking
Some of the project’s worst environmental impacts stem from extraction of the gas itself, hidden from local communities. The major sources of natural gas supplying the GTN pipeline come from hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” operations in Canada. Fracking is a dirty extraction process which uses massive reserves of freshwater mixed with chemicals and sand. The concoction is injected underground to release otherwise difficult-to-reach oil and natural gas deposits. The primary byproduct of this process is toxic wastewater which frequently leaks into the groundwater supply, poisoning homes and destroying ecosystems. Fracking also releases massive quantities of methane, a potent greenhouse gas with 84 times the global warming potential than carbon dioxide on a 20-year timescale. (National Geographic) Factoring in methane emissions alone is enough to completely undermine capitalist claims that natural gas is a “clean” alternative to other fossil fuels.
Even setting fracking pollution aside, the track record of TC Energy’s pipelines themselves is far from “clean.” The infamous Keystone pipeline, for example, has burst 22 times between 2010 and 2022. The largest spill in Keystone’s history occurred in its most recent leak on Dec. 7, 2022, when an estimated 543,000 gallons of oil was leaked into a creek in Washington County, Kansas.
Fears over similar spills have fueled fierce opposition to further pipeline expansions, especially from Native nations whose water supplies are threatened by them. For over a decade, Lakota, Nakoda, A’aninin, and other water protectors fought the Keystone XL pipeline project in South Dakota until it was finally canceled in 2021. In Western Canada, Wetʼsuwetʼen water protectors have resisted the construction of the Coastal GasLink Pipeline through 120 miles of unceded territory since 2010.
Indigenous nations’ opposition to GTN Xpress
Continuing in this tradition of resistance, GTN Xpress is also opposed by Indigenous nations in the Pacific Northwest. The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission is composed of the four sovereign treaty tribes of the Columbia and Snake River Basin: the Nez Perce Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and the Yakama Nation. The CRITFC has been in opposition to the GTN Xpress project from the start. In August 2022, CRITFC responded to the release of FERC’s draft Environmental Impact Statement with a letter criticizing the lack of tribal involvement in planning for GTN Xpress. In particular, the letter notes that the Tribes’ treaty fishing rights are jeopardized by any contamination from leaky pipelines.
In response to FERC’s final EIS for the pipeline expansion, Washington, Oregon and California’s Attorneys General filed a joint motion to intervene, asking FERC to deny the project for failing to serve the public need, and for violating the states’ commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The proposal’s steamrolling of state laws and interests shows the power of big capital — a foreign corporation has more control over the United States than its own “democratic” institutions do.
In response to the GTN Xpress plan’s numerous harms, groups like Rogue Climate, Columbia Riverkeeper, the Sierra Club, Extinction Rebellion Portland, Wild Idaho Rising Tide, Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, and more have formed the Stop GTN Xpress coalition. The group has coordinated demonstrations across the Northwest, urging FERC to reject the proposals. On February 13, people’s hearings were held online and in-person at Sandpoint, Idaho, and Phoenix, Oregon, over the pipeline.
The hearings, led by Stop GTN Xpress, let concerned members of the community and climate advocates voice their opposition to the project. Despite the hearings, as well as protests and legal battles, FERC shows no signs of halting the expansion.
Rather than elected state governments or sovereign Native nations having control over the pipeline outputs, FERC is the body with that regulatory power and has a long history of using it to side with the oil and gas industry. FERC has rejected only two of the 425 gas project proposals it has considered between 2000 and 2021. Perhaps this is why the commission is still considering the GTN Xpress proposal even after TC Energy and its partners failed to disclose conflicts of interest in the creation of their environmental impact statement. Corruption and corporate greed are business as usual.
With pressure mounting from environmental groups and a renewed spotlight on TC Energy’s shoddy record following July’s pipeline explosion in Virginia, FERC has delayed their review of GTN Xpress, likely until their next open meeting on Sept. 21. The Stop GTN Xpress Coalition plans to protest the hearing as soon as the item is announced on FERC’s agenda.
With such a broad coalition gathered in opposition to the project, including the state governments themselves, it’s a wonder the project advanced to a FERC review at all. Instead, the capitalist system never questions TC Energy’s “right” to increased profits over environmental and public health concerns at every turn.