A pipeline built years ago may start to export Rocky Mountain gas to Asia
In the summer of 2010, construction began on the Ruby Pipeline, a 680-mile interstate artery for carrying as much as 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day from the Opal Hub in southwestern Wyoming to the Malin Hub in southern Oregon. The project crossed sensitive sagebrush plains and something like 1,000 creeks and rivers, and the Center for Biological Diversity and the Summit Lake Paiute Tribe tried to stop the line in the courts due to its impact on endangered fish and sacred lands. Yet unlike, say, the Keystone XL pipeline, the Ruby garnered very little national or even regional attention or controversy. After all, it was just another strand in the web of pipelines and transmission lines that crisscross the Western landscape.
At the same time, another proposed project was moving forward in southern Oregon. The Jordan Cove LNG import terminal, on a spit in Coos Bay, had received Federal Energy Regulation Commission approval several months earlier to unload liquefied natural gas from special tanker ships coming from Asia, Russia or the Middle East, re-gasify it, and then put it in the still-to-be-built Pacific Connector pipeline, which would carry it back down to the Malin Hub — the Ruby’s termination point. From there, the imported natural gas would be shipped to California and the Pacific Northwest.
A few years earlier, when planning began on both projects, demand for natural gas was high and domestic supplies limited. But by the time the Ruby Pipeline was under construction, the two projects together didn’t make a lot of sense. The demand for all that natural gas simply wasn’t there any more, and by 2010, prices had crashed from a high of nearly $11 per thousand cubic feet to just $4, rendering the notion of importing LNG absurd. It was nothing a change of a couple of letters couldn't fix: After long pooh-poohing the idea of natural gas exports, the Jordan Cove proponents changed their import terminal proposal into one for an export terminal.
In late March, the Department of Energy granted conditional approval to Jordan Cove to export up to .8 billion cubic feet of LNG per day to nations that do not have a Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. Though the approval — the first of its kind on the West Coast aside from Alaska — was not a surprise, it did come a bit more quickly than anticipated, perhaps due to new pressure from politicians from natural gas-producing states who are trying to use the crisis in Ukraine to globalize U.S. natural gas, ostensibly in order to weaken Russia, the main supplier of gas to Europe.
By no means is the terminal a done deal. Proponents of the $7.5 billion project still must navigate oodles of federal and state red tape before they can begin construction, not to mention stiff opposition from various quarters.
An integral component of the project is the 231-mile long Pacific Connector Pipeline, which would connect the terminal to the Malin Hub — and the Ruby Pipeline. Once that linkage is made, the Ruby Pipeline will have a much more profitable reason to exist. It will become, long after it was built, the critical link for shipping natural gas from the Rocky Mountain gas fields — the Jonah Field in Wyoming, the Piceance Basin in Colorado, the Uintah Basin in northern Utah — to Asia. One has to wonder if that wasn’t in the cards all along.
The impact of such exports on the Interior West’s gas fields could be significant. Jordan Cove's approval allows it to ship .8 billion cubic feet of gas per day, which is almost one-fifth of Colorado’s total daily natural gas production. Jordan Cove won't necessarily operate to capacity, and it may even get some of its gas for export from Canada. But if even a fraction of the gas it sends overseas comes from the Ruby Pipeline, it could represent a sizable bump in demand on the gas fields that the pipeline draws from.
How LNG exports would affect prices, both at the wellhead and for consumers, is hotly debated (export pushers claim that consumers would see a negligible price increase, yet the main reason they’re pushing exports is to benefit the natural gas industry in their states, which would come from an increase in wellhead prices, so…). A 2012 Department of Energy study found that natural gas prices had nowhere to go but up, with or without exports, but that exports would speed up the increase. Higher prices lead directly to more drilling. And more drilling gives an economic boost to the communities around the gas patch, just as construction of the massive gas terminal will add a bunch of jobs to the Coos Bay economy, which has struggled along with the ailing timber industry in recent years.
That's why otherwise green-leaning folks like Democratic Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, from Oregon and Colorado respectively, have put their weight behind Jordan Cove and exports in general. More jobs mean more votes come election time.
But there's also plenty of opposition, both on a local and regional scale. The terminal is controversial, in part, due to the danger that one of the ships or storage tanks could blow up — a hazard that was highlighted by an explosion, a week after DOE’s Jordan Cove approval, at a natural gas plant in Washington. Though the risk is slight, it has happened before: In 2004, a catastrophic explosion at an LNG facility in Algeria killed 27 people and injured dozens of others, and in 2012 an LNG tanker truck blew up in China, wreaking havoc.
Environmentalists in Oregon are worried about the impacts of the aforementioned 231-mile long Pacific Connector pipeline, an integral component of the terminal project. According to local opposition group Citizens Against LNG, the pipeline would impact hundreds of bodies of water, along with Northern Spotted Owl habitat. And back in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, where the gas patch has been relatively quiet in recent years, communities are bracing for another drilling onslaught and the environmental and social tolls it might bring with it.
The fight over Jordan Cove, and fossil fuel exports in general, is far from over. The opposition could prevail. China or Europe might have their own shale gas boom, making our natural gas less desirable in the global market. In the meantime, the lesson here seems to have to do with the Ruby Pipeline: Nearly all big energy projects, whether windfarms in Wyoming or solar plants in the Mojave, rely on moving the energy from the point of production to the market. In other words, a transmission line is never just a transmission line, and a pipeline never just a pipeline. They are enablers of much bigger things. Perhaps they deserve a bit more attention than the Ruby Pipeline got while it was being built.
Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. He tweets @jonnypeace.