CASSANDRA PROFITA, The Daily Astorian, January 26, 2009
In a move eagerly anticipated by liquefied natural gas opponents on the North Coast of Oregon, President Barack Obama has named Jon Wellinghoff acting chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
“The move, together with likely changes to the board’s makeup in the coming months and pending challenges to the U.S. Court of Appeals, could have consequences for the Bradwood Landing LNG project, the front-runner among three LNG proposals in Oregon.
Wellinghoff, a Democrat, was the lone dissenting vote on the Bradwood project, which was approved by FERC in a 4-1 vote in September. He replaces former chairman Joseph Kelliher, a Republican, who stepped down earlier this month but remains on the board as he looks for new job opportunities.
Wellinghoff helped establish FERC’s Energy Innovations Sector to promote new technologies and was also the main author of the renewable energy standards established in Nevada, where he served as the state’s first consumer advocate for customers of public utilities. Environmentalists expect the commission to put a higher priority on energy efficiency and renewable resources under his leadership.
“The new chairman is technically only one vote, but he does help set the agenda for the discussions and considerations of FERC,” said Peter Huhtala, executive director of the Astoria-based Columbia River Business Alliance, which is opposed to LNG. “It’s a step in the right direction, certainly.”
Wellinghoff traveled to Oregon in 2007 to talk with local and state leaders about the three LNG projects proposed in Oregon. Two proposed terminals are on the lower Columbia River and one is in Coos Bay.
“He listened to our concerns,” said Huhtala. “I felt like we were listened to, and – son of a gun – he followed up.”
Wellinghoff voted against the $650 million Bradwood Landing project, proposed for a site 20 miles east of Astoria on the Columbia River, arguing that the project developers have not proven the LNG terminal is needed to meet the region’s energy needs, that more efficient, reliable and environmentally preferable alternatives could substitute for LNG, and that “significant environmental concerns” about the project had not been fully evaluated.
Several challenges to FERC’s approval of the Bradwood project are still in the works, and two FERC board members, Kelliher and Commissioner Suedeen Kelly, whose term ends June 30 are likely to be replaced by Obama appointees in the next six months.
“It starts to get real easy to count to three, doesn’t it?” said Huhtala.
Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of the LNG opponent group Columbia Riverkeeper, said by the time the Bradwood project developers have met more than 100 conditions placed on the September approval, the board may have a different opinion of what meets federal regulations.
“Bradwood is far from meeting its conditions and far from getting its approval to start construction,” he said. “FERC’s approval says there can’t be any construction, any action, until they get final approval from FERC after satisfying all the conditions. We expect FERC to look at Bradwood with a more critical eye when determining the conditions.”
Columbia Riverkeeper and Gov. Ted Kulongoski are both planning to file a challenge to FERC’s approval of the Bradwood project at the U.S. Court of Appeals this week. The state of Washington and regional tribes may file similar challenges, as well.
If the court overturns the Bradwood approval, FERC will have to revisit the case and may even be forced to redo the environmental assessment of the project.
“With a new chair, new FERC members and a decision from the court rejecting FERC’s initial approval, we may very well get a different answer,” said VandenHeuvel.