Sustainability Means Never Having To Say You’re Sorry

Oregon is waiting for its next big earthquake, and it will be the largest earthquake and tsunami in American and Canadian history. How can we prepare for natural disasters?

By Judith Stapleton

A mirror image of what happened in Fukushima, Japan, Oregon is on the Cascadia Subduction Zone, where the Pacific plate and the North American plate are rubbing up against each other.These geo-physical plates crack on average once every 250 years, at a magnitude 9. The last time this event happened was 317 years ago, in the year 1700. Clearly, we are overdue.

In this quake event, the earth will liquify, and anything flammable in the vicinity will explode. You might think that this would be a terrible location to build a Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) pipeline export terminal. But a small number of politically well-placed people are determined to build it anyway.

When this quake occurs, the Northwest edge of the continent, from California to British Columbia, and the continental shelf to the Cascade Mountains, will drop by as much as six feet and rebound thirty to a hundred feet to the west—losing, within minutes of the quake, all the elevation and compression it has gained over centuries. Some of that shift will take place beneath the ocean, displacing a colossal quantity of seawater. The water will surge upward into a huge hill, then promptly collapse. One side will rush west, toward Japan. The other side will rush east, in a seven-hundred-mile long liquid wall that will reach the Northwest coast, on average, fifteen minutes after the earthquake begins. By the time the shaking has ceased and the tsunami has receded, the region will be unrecognizable. Kenneth Murphy, who directs FEMA’s Region X, the division responsible for Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska, says, “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.”

In Oregon, it has been illegal since 1995 to build new hospitals, schools, firehouses, and police stations in the inundation zone, but any other new construction is permissible: energy facilities, hotels, retirement homes. In those cases, builders are required only to consult with Department of Geology and Minerals (DOGAMI) about evacuation plans. Their chief scientist, Ian Madin, says, “So you come in and sit down, and I say, ‘That’s a stupid idea.’ And you say, ‘Thanks. Now we’ve consulted.’ ”

In March of last year, Before Trump (BF), the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rejected plans for a massive Liquified Natural Gas export terminal, called the Jordan Cove Energy Project, located in Coos Bay, Oregon, right in the middle of the quake-tsunami zone, but not because it was a dangerous, ludicrous idea.

Despite political assurances from Canada, there were no signed commitments from potential buyers of the LNG that would be carried by the pipeline, owned by Canadian energy company Veresen Inc. and its subsidiary collaborator the Williams Partners. The Federal Commission regulators said they were required to balance the need for any project against any adverse impacts it would have on landowners or the environment. The need for Jordan Cove was based entirely on demand for natural gas from customers in Asia, particularly Japan and South Korea. With those markets in upheaval, Jordan Cove’s backers of the state-crossing pipeline and the export terminal on the fragile shoreline have yet to demonstrate that the demand exists.

“Because the record does not support a finding that the public benefits of the Pacific Connector Pipeline outweigh the adverse effects on landowners, we deny Pacific Connector’s request…to construct and operate the pipeline,” the commission’s order said. The absence of committed buyers for a product not yet available might have been called “evidence” a month ago. But that was BT.

Under the new Secretary of Energy, Rick Perry, we can expect that, all evidence to the contrary, anything to do with fossil fuels is a Go. We know this because even the Keystone XL and Dakota access pipelines have been put back on the table by the new administration. Rick Perry is all over fracking.

Policy advisor to the Climate Justice Program at the Centre for Sustainable Economy, Ted Gleichman, says, “Liquefied natural gas is the biggest piece of the United States energy program that most people know almost nothing about. It is all fracked gas, like all natural gas that’s being used now, that is being either shipped to the coasts for export, or put into smallerscale facilities that are just being built around the country now for local use and for utility management of their gas plants. So it is a massive, massive program at this point—hundreds of billions of dollars.”

What is especially disturbing about the structure of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, is that it has regulatory responsibility as an independent agency, part of, but not subject directly to, the Department of Energy. Five commissioners appointed by the President, and then approved by the Senate, constitute the FERC Commission. It has responsibilities for electricity, hydro-electric power, natural gas and oil, and with what the industry likes to call “the shale gas revolution.”

Under federal law, they are required to approve all new natural gas pipelines—their numbers are growing daily—and any LNG export facility. An elemental part of what they are supposed to do is operate in the public interest. The problem is, they are 100% funded by the industry that they are supposed to regulate. So this is not merely a matter of the fox guarding the henhouse. This is the only place the fox shops. Within the annual federal budget process they have a zero budget status. Every year, they charge back all of their costs to the industry in proportion to what they’ve done for the industry.Gleichman explains: “It’s a two-step program. They get money at the beginning of the year and then they charge it back to the industry at the end of the year, so it’s a wash over a two-year period for the federal budget—a win/win in Washington terms in our current dysfunctional government.”

This President-appointed group has powerful leverage in all decisions that might conceivably serve the public interest under the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Act, too. In fact, there is not a single patch on the horizon of energy—be it nuclear, hydro, fracked gas, oil, or coal—that is not squarely in the sights of the FERC.
Concerning the Commission’s involvement in keeping unfit nuclear power plants open, the Nuclear Energy Institute noted in its recent newsletter, “Maybe if FERC and its stakeholders could figure out something different…[but] the financial stress put on nuclear plants has the clear potential of precipitating a ruinous outcome. FERC doesn’t—can’t—want that. It’s not just a nuclear energy issue; it’s an existential issue.”

“FERC is all about the money,” Gleichman says. “Just in the same way that for their own budget that’s where it’s at, that’s also how they are charged under federal law, under the Natural Gas Act, with managing gas facilities. If somebody says that they can make money by selling gas in the market, then they have a right to apply to pipelines that can include things like eminent domain, across the homes of people who had no idea that this was coming at them, and there are thousands and thousands of people throughout the United States who’ve been dealing with this as the shale gas revolution has proceeded…This pipeline—232 miles across two mountain ranges, five rivers, 400 other watercourses, big chunks of old growth forest and second growth forest in national forests and other federal lands—would devastate this part of southern Oregon.”

Gleichman’s assessment is terrifying to contemplate. He says, “If approved, it would be constructed on a sand spit on the Pacific Coast that will liquefy when the earthquake hits, and then the pipeline itself running across all of these earthquake-prone mountains and forests and through farms, homes, woodlands that people have operated for generations, [would cause explosions and fires], which is why they didn’t sign easements and why eminent domain would be required on an unprecedented level.”

In fact, about 90% of the Oregon properties through which the pipeline would be built, would have to be expropriated under “eminent domain.” A swath of forest as wide as a freeway—about 100 feet— would be cleared around the pipeline. For a logger in need of a job, this would be a tough gig. And that angst is true about all the employment promised in all the pipeline projects, where construction jobs are temporary and come with no health benefits and no security for raising a family.

For Gleichman, the $21 billion aimed at shipping fracked gas out of Oregon is the kind of money that needs to be spent on renewables: solar thermal, solar photovoltaic, solar electric, wind, and the storage systems to allow those renewables to replace the old sources that create electricity —oil and natural gas and coal.

There is no fossil fuel solution to the fossil fuel crisis. We can all see the climate degrade around us. We all know that this is not the climate we grew up with. We are living through a slow-motion emergency that becomes an urgent catastrophe whenever extreme weather events hit. Any job that helps contribute to that disaster cannot be defined as a “good job no matter how much it pays.

In the small, charming community of Seaside, Oregon, the superintendent of schools, Doug Doughery, oversees four schools which lie almost entirely within the tsunami-inundation zone. There are 1,600 students in his domain of responsibility. Three of the schools sit only five to fifteen feet above sea level. When the tsunami comes, they will be as much as forty-five feet below it. The only place to go is a small ridge just behind the schools. At its tallest, it is forty-five feet high—lower than the expected wave in a full-margin earthquake. For now, the route to the ridge is marked by signs that say, “Temporary Tsunami Assembly Area.” Dougherty’s answer to questions about the state’s long-range plan is stark. “There is no long-range plan,” he says.
Almost all of the world’s most powerful earthquakes occur in the Ring of Fire, the volcanically and seismically volatile sweep of the Pacific that runs from New Zealand up through Indonesia and Japan, across the ocean to Alaska, and down the west coast of the Americas to Chile. The Ring of Fire is really a ring of subduction zones. In 1960, Chile’s quake was 9.5; in 1964, Alaska’s was 9.2; in 2004, Indonesia’s was 9.1; Japan, in 2011, experienced a 9.0 quake.

It was not until the late 1960s, with the rise of the theory of plate tectonics, that geologists could explain this pattern. In spite of the long quietude on the coast since the big quake in 1700, the evidence is clear. But this timespan is dangerous, both because it is too long—long enough to build a civilization on the continent’s worst fault line—and because it is not long enough. “When that tsunami is coming, you run,” Jay Wilson, the chair of the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission (OSSPAC), says. “You protect yourself, you don’t turn around, you don’t go back to save anybody. You run for your life.”

Publisher’s Note: Judith Stapleton is a writer in the fields of science and medicine.