This story is co-published with ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power.
This past spring, while much of the country focused on COVID-19, three men who work in an obscure corner of the federal government weighed a question with profound effects across the American West. On the docket was a proposal to build a natural gas pipeline that would slice through hundreds of miles of Oregon wilderness, private lands and areas sacred to American Indians. The plan, which had been repeatedly rejected by state and federal regulators for more than a decade, would give a Canadian company the right to seize the land it needed from any American property owner who stood in the way. The government panel that would make the decision can meet in person. But on this March afternoon, it was conducting the people’s business in writing — government by what amounts to dueling memos.
The members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission are typically the kind of people President Donald Trump has in mind when he derisively talks about the “deep state”: faceless bureaucrats who pull the levers of power with little scrutiny or accountability. Except these were Trump’s bureaucrats. Two of the three members had been appointed by the president, whose enthusiasm for any project that might be cast as boosting America’s fossil fuel industry is nothing if not predictable.
It is hard to argue that the plan to connect the Oregon coast via pipeline to the Canadian Rockies would do much for American frackers hit hard by an international energy glut. For one thing, the gas would come from Canadian wells, at least at first. Also, it was uncertain whether there was much of a market for gas that would be piped 229 miles through Oregon to supertankers docked at a high-tech facility in the fishing town of Coos Bay. Backers of the project had assured FERC that they would find customers in Asia, that many countries would someday stop buying cheap and locally available coal and fuel their industries with far more expensive but cleaner North American gas. Even supporters acknowledged that such a shift was unlikely to happen anytime soon and might not tap American gas wells along the route for years.
The state of Oregon had refused to approve the project, and FERC had rejected it once already. But Jordan Cove, as it’s called, had come roaring back to life with help from a powerful advocate operating from what Trump likes to call “the swamp.” The lead lobbyist for the Canadian company was David Urban, a Republican political operative credited with delivering the traditionally Democratic state of Pennsylvania to the president in the 2016 election. The argument in favor of the project hit two key tenets of Trumpism: It would create jobs in the U.S. and counter the influence China had on its neighbors as an energy exporter.
By law, the question before the FERC commissioners was whether the project served the “public interest.” Simply put, did the benefits of constructing a pipeline and a facility that would turn gas into its more easily transported liquid form, called liquefied natural gas, or LNG for short, outweigh the possible harm?
Both Republicans voted yes. Chairman Neil Chatterjee, a former policy adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, shared the news in a jolly Twitter post. He was “pleased,” he declared. “This is the 12th #LNG export project @FERC has approved since I became Chairman,” he wrote, adding “#JordanCove” just because. The Democrat on the losing side of the 2-1 vote called the approval a departure from reasoned decision-making and complained that his colleagues had not even considered the effect an export gas facility would have on climate change.
Three thousand miles away, news of the project’s approval sent Bill Gow, a cattle rancher from southern Oregon, into a lasting funk. He’d spent more than three decades building his business on land in the path of the pipeline. Now he could lose a chunk of it, along with something he had once taken for granted: the liberty to be the only person who could decide how that land was used.
“For about a week I walked around in a fog thinking, Jiminy Christmas this can’t be,” Gow said.
He’d been fighting the pipeline since 2004 and thought he killed it, twice. This time, he could scarcely believe what it would bring: A foreign company could just take his land? It can do this, even if it never delivers gas to a single American household, and irrespective of whether it ever builds anything?
Yes and yes.
“It’s just so wrong,” Gow said.
Gow voted for Trump in 2016. He figured America needed the change, and he wanted to defend the interests of small business owners and rural Americans like him. Four years later, Gow feels let down and is convinced that both political parties are beholden to corporations — even foreign corporations that aim to take American land.
In this corner of the Pacific Northwest, conservative values tend to run deep. And Bill Gow is that guy. Raised by “a drunk” in the city of Klamath Falls, a tightknit farming town in the southwest corner of Oregon, he worked for years in the iron industry to fund undergraduate studies in agriculture and to chase his lifelong dream of becoming a rancher. He’s since built a 2,500-acre cattle ranch on a mountain south of the meandering Umpqua River, surrounded by hills that roll off toward a smattering of smaller ranches he has also purchased, in addition to lands he leases for more grazing — holdings that make for a modest empire in these parts.
For 35 years, Gow has grown his beef business. He cherishes the freedom to roam his own land — usually on an all-terrain vehicle and outfitted most days in boots, jeans and a baseball or cowboy hat — and looks forward to passing it all on to his children. “For a man who came from nothing to be able to have something like this? Only in America, the land of milk and honey, could you do this.”
Life has mostly been good. Both his children were valedictorians at the local high school. Now they have ranches nearby of their own, and Gow is a proud grandfather, bragging about his two 4-year-old granddaughters’ command of a horse. Gow’s wife, Sharon, a champion barrel racer (a sport just like it sounds: horses racing around barrels), does double duty as babysitter and riding instructor.
“You don’t see a bunch of tattoos and shit on us. We don’t smoke dope. We don’t do any of that crap,” he said, tinted glasses in frame, standard pocket T-shirt. “We’re not quite like the Amish or anything, but we’re kind of old school.”
It was already a memorable day on Gow’s ranch when he first encountered the pipeline agent. A coyote had been yapping below the mountain, raising hell. So Gow grabbed a gun and took off walking, spotting the coyote without a clear sight and firing from 50 yards. He wasn’t sure whether he’d hit the coyote, or even what the commotion was about. So he walked to the tree to look for blood and examine the fuss. Just then, his phone rang. When it did, it startled a bear overhead in the limbs. Gow heard branches fall, and as he turned, a bear hit the ground with a wham! then sprinted off into the woods.
Stunned, Gow said hello into the phone. It was his teenage son, Colton, talking about some guy who had shown up at the Gows’ home. This news was almost as strange as a coyote treeing a bear: Navigating to the Gow residence is not easy, and uninvited guests are rare. Gow went back to the family’s ranch house, low and brown and cut into the forest where the gravel road ends in a loop, the living room stuffed with prize saddles and trophy buckles, the walls stocked with photos of a family that ropes and races. He found the man in the driveway, standing by a pickup outside a corral. He was clean-cut, older, with an air of officialdom. Gow knew a pipeline company had designs on the area — it had already sent paperwork, something about a survey. Gow had ignored it.
The man quickly went to work seeking signatures, telling Gow he realized how emotional this would be, what he might be going through. “But, you know,” Gow recalled the agent saying, “people go through it all the time and they come out for the better. And look at the money you’re going to have.”
At a certain point, Gow understood. The man wanted his land, or some portion of it. Gow’s response was less roundabout: “You get your ass off this property and you don’t ever come back.” He didn’t stop there. Gow wasn’t yet versed in the world of corporations, investors and land seizure, but he could sense that this man, standing in his driveway, meant something more than trespassing. “I’m not interested,” Gow continued. “I don’t want your pipeline, and I don’t want your way of life. I don’t want anything to do with it!”
In the 16 years since that encounter, Gow has come to see how naive he was about his private property, about his liberty. On that strange day when the coyote treed the bear, that “way of life” — in which big business uses lawyers, loopholes and buyouts to bend everyday people to its will — was coming for him whether he liked it or not.
That was in 2004, when a Canadian firm first named Fort Colorado, then Veresen Midstream, was angling to build a port terminal on the coast of Oregon. In those days, the idea was to import natural gas for sale to American customers, not export it. The facility would be useless without a pipeline connecting it to the rest of the United States, and the only plausible route was through private lands like Gow’s ranch. In 2009, Veresen obtained local permits and approval from FERC to build its import facility. The firm’s efforts were aided by the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which gave federal regulators new powers to speed development and condemn land in the post-9/11 drive to secure America’s energy independence. But as fracking technology began opening gas fields of the Canadian and American West, the volume of gas in North America far exceeded domestic needs. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, developers spied new potential for exporting natural gas to Japan and other Asian countries that would be turning away from nuclear energy, and someday coal.
Veresen continued to maintain publicly that it was planning to import natural gas, but as the plan became increasingly nonsensical, the company looked to exports as an alternative. With so much natural gas being pumped from fields in the Rockies, anyone who would build the literal conduit to the coast and markets abroad stood to make a killing. But Veresen had secured the power to expedite development and condemn land with an import-based model. When the company reversed course and proclaimed Jordan Cove an export facility in 2012, FERC promptly revoked its permits. Undaunted, the company applied for federal permits once more that would give it the right to seize any land it needed.
The authority for doing this has long been part of the legal fabric of American capitalism. Courts have continually agreed that landowners in the way of developments with larger benefits for society can be bought out, whether it is for a shopping mall or a baseball stadium. It is also no secret that governments can seize people’s lands through the process of eminent domain, when lawmakers determine that the public value of a highway, hospital or hydropower dam, say, outweighs the private property rights of individual landowners.
What is less commonly understood is that the list of public necessities has been growing steadily over the past 144 years. Infrastructure that delivers electricity falls into this category; federal, state or local governments can and do take land, as long as they pay for it. The federal government can also extend that seizing power to oil and gas companies that provide energy services, or ones that merely float a plan someday to do so, so long as they also pay.
Thanks to a 2006 Supreme Court decision, projects requiring seizure of private land do not need to demonstrate public value beyond simply involving some kind of economic growth. In Kelo v. New London, the court sided with the Connecticut city after landowners argued that the public value of a new mall did not outweigh the value of individual property.
For projects involving energy, it is up to FERC to determine when such developments are essential. And while the commission has long required proof that whatever fuel travels by pipe has a buyer at one end and a seller at the other, with willing customers in waiting, such benchmarks are sufficiently easy to hit that FERC rarely denies permits for oil and gas pipelines (or much else). Over a recent 12-year period, the commission issued 480 approvals and just three denials.
Critics say FERC’s standards to determine the merit of permits for export pipelines are especially lax, incorporating such easily met benchmarks as whether projects will generate taxes and jobs. Critics say this is far from the Natural Gas Act of 1938, which directed the commission to use its authority to supply underserved communities with fuel.
“They’re attempting to flip the test on its head,” said Megan Gibson, an attorney with the Niskanen Center, a think tank that is litigating on behalf of landowners. “They are really going to open up Pandora’s box here if the D.C. Circuit allows them to get away with this. Then anybody, any company in the world, can come into the United States and build infrastructure to export natural gas … and that’s considered a public benefit.”
Pipelines already crisscross the nation, but it’s only the biggest or most controversial ones that garner much public attention: The Trans-Alaska pipeline, for instance, or the Dakota Access pipeline, which made international headlines following the protracted protest on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
For the most part, though, pipelines go unnoticed, mainly because they are buried and usually constructed far from the places where most Americans live. Only when someone plans a pipeline through your land, through your life, do the extraordinary powers of the companies behind them become clear.
A few months after Gow kicked the pipeline agent off his land, he received a letter. It was from a group whose properties and interests were also in the path of Jordan Cove and the proposed Pacific Connector pipeline. The letter invited affected parties to a meeting in the hamlet of Myrtle Creek, 12 miles from Gow’s ranch.
Gow was skeptical. As someone who spends a considerable amount of time bellyaching about “Earth Babies,” which is to say people with tattoos, vegetarians, animal-rights activists, urbanites and antifa — far-left activists who oppose white supremacists and are portrayed as rioters on Fox News — Gow assumed the Myrtle Creek meeting would be a clown show. But he also wanted to know what was going on with the pipeline, so he bit his lip and drove to the event.
At the meeting, Gow watched a woman named Jody McCaffree take charge of the room. She quickly marshaled the bare facts — pipeline, natural gas — into something of a counterattack. Finding support wasn’t hard. In the room that day were frustration, outrage and a lot of bewilderment. If built, the Pacific Connector would cross three major water basins, including hundreds of rivers and streams, 80 miles of public forest, at least 10 sites sacred to Native American tribes, several ancient villages and graves, and a major coastal estuary in Coos Bay. The pipeline would also likely compromise the habitat of dozens of animals protected by the Endangered Species Act. These facts had drawn to the meeting not only landowners, but Native Americans and environmentalists who had been in fights with the government before. Everyone there understood that, commercially speaking, the project made little sense as an import facility. The real struggle was trying to understand how anyone could see it otherwise.
As time wore on, the switch from import to export only amplified that sense of bewilderment. The question, simply put, was how on earth was this project supposed to make money in a world transitioning away from fossil fuels? North American gas is among the world’s most expensive. Owing to its combustibility, it can’t be transported by rail and can’t be regularly trucked at a reasonable cost. Veresen said it didn’t plan to distribute any gas to the region; the pipeline’s sole purpose was to move it to a terminal for sale to foreign customers. How could FERC deem such a project so essential to American interests that its owners could take people’s land?
Then there was the question of whether the project would have any long-term economic benefits to Americans at all. While Veresen made overtures in the American market, offering to export gas extracted from fields in Rocky Mountain states, the company was also part of a collection of corporations angling to sell overseas customers either fracked gas from Canada or methane that leaked from the large deposits of hard-to-mine crude oil in Alberta known as tar sands. In other words, Jordan Cove and its supporting pipeline might only ever carry Canadian gas, with just a few permanent jobs and taxes flowing to Americans.
To Gow and other landowners, it was hard to fathom how such a project could meet any sort of public-interest standard to justify seizing people’s land. This commodity was going to flow through their property to distant consumers, while enriching people not just outside the county or state, but outside the country.
Meanwhile, Gow would be harmed whether the pipeline was ever built or not, as long as the possibility of it dragged on. With his land in the crosshairs, he debated whether to run cows on this pasture or that one, whether to build a barn on a hill that might someday be taken over by Canadian investors. Building a pipeline, were it ever to happen, could also cause landslides on the steep slopes surrounding Gow’s home. Worse, he said, is that he had spent years digging and rigging holes to water cattle based on where rain pools, a delicate system that would be jeopardized by trenching and construction. The timber harvests with which he supplemented his income would be curtailed because of the lost slice of land, too — no replanting allowed. Most galling of all, Gow said, is the prospect that his ranch, his oasis, could suddenly become a thruway for construction and maintenance, an avenue for aerial surveillance and regular pesticide spraying that he would have no control over.
“Would it affect you if people could walk through your yard? Through your house?” Gow asked rhetorically.
In 2016, Veresen’s bid for an export facility fell short, one of those three permit applications denied out of 483 applications over 12 years. Mounting opposition may have been a factor, but more so was the fact that Veresen was something of a lightweight in the world of oil and gas development; it made missteps that a more seasoned company would have avoided. Landowners pointed out, for example, that Veresen had signed up only a fraction of them to sell their land for the pipeline to run through. Veresen also had no one to ship the gas. Even the fossil-fuel-friendly FERC had little choice but to deny the permit, ruling that Veresen hadn’t proven any need for the pipeline to balance against landowners’ interests.
When Gow and other opponents of the project heard the news, they promptly decamped to the nearest bar to celebrate the end of the Canadians’ Oregon adventure. “We thought we were done with it,” Gow told me. “If only we would have known.”
A few weeks after Trump took office, the CEO of Veresen met with Gary Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs executive who was the new head of the National Economic Council. Gary Althoff, Veresen’s CEO, told an interviewer that Cohn had given him a commitment to work together. Soon after, Cohn publicly declared that “the first thing we’re going to do is we’re going to permit an LNG export facility in the Northwest,” adding: “Just think of the transport time from the Northwest to Japan versus anywhere else.”
Ten days later, Veresen was bought by Pembina, a larger Canadian energy company that set its sights on turning those words into reality. There was much work to be done. The Trump administration, in fact, had no authority to greenlight Jordan Cove; that power rested with FERC, an independent regulatory agency not subject to White House control.
Veresen had struggled over the years to navigate such complexities of Washington bureaucracy, leaning on a pair of lobbyists who had spent the bulk of their time pressing officials in the U.S. House and Senate — lower-level targets. But after Trump took office and Pembina acquired Veresen, the company turned to a longtime lobbyist named David Urban to take their cause straight to the top.
Urban was a former campaign adviser to Trump. The New York Times would later call Urban “perhaps the best-connected lobbyist” in Trump’s America. He had been a West Point cadet with two of Trump’s cabinet appointees: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper. As the head of Trump’s Pennsylvania campaign, he is also credited with clinching the critical swing state in the 2016 election, where Urban had once been chief of staff of longtime Republican Sen. Arlen Specter. Following Trump’s election victory, Urban became part of a tight club of lobbyists who had publicly supported the president’s bid for the White House. Trump has called him a “good friend,” and the two have been seen together at sporting events and flying on Marine One.
Urban’s client list ballooned after the election, as did his income. His lobbying firm, American Continental Group Inc., grew revenues by 58% over the prior year in 2017, increasing to more than $9 million by the end of 2018. Urban’s own earnings jumped from $2.14 million in 2016 to $7.37 million by the end of 2018. In the first few months of Trump’s presidency, it was widely reported that Trump was eyeing both Urban and Cohn to serve as his White House chief of staff. Neither got the job.
Urban’s lobbying on Pembina’s behalf intensified within the year. According to disclosure reports, he began directly lobbying the executive office of the president and FERC to support Jordan Cove in the spring of 2018. Pembina also added lobbyists from the firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, which formerly employed the secretary of the interior, David Bernhardt. Those new advocates targeted their former colleague’s department, which oversaw permits for countless miles of pipeline crossing through federal lands. By the summer of 2018, the Bureau of Land Management began setting aside a reserve for the pipeline — 885 acres and counting — and the Department of the Interior has since put Jordan Cove on a list of expedited projects to support the nation’s economic recovery.
Pembina and Urban did not respond to questions related to this story. But what seems clear is that, with such a heavy-hitting roster, Pembina not only had more political juice than its predecessor, it was also better positioned to make Jordan Cove look viable. The company already owned and operated a pipeline route from northwest of Edmonton, Alberta, to the Rocky Mountain West. The acquisition of Veresen gave it half ownership of another pipeline from Wyoming to Malin, Oregon, in the south-central part of the state. If the company could build the final leg to Coos Bay, it could pipe gas from Canada to the Pacific. The world’s export markets would be within reach.
Pembina’s ambitions were bolstered by a trifecta of Trump administration policies and legislation cemented by the end of 2018 aimed at undercutting China as Asia’s chief power broker. The U.S. BUILD (Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development) Act, the Asia EDGE (Enhancing Development and Growth through Energy) initiative and the Japan-United States Strategic Energy Partnership all looked to spur transcontinental investment and financing in energy infrastructure, as well as to position the U.S. to compete with nations already supplying natural gas to Asia. Trump administration officials saw these programs as countering China’s efforts to build roads and infrastructure across Southeast Asia. The idea was to prevent Beijing from dominating the region as an energy exporter while weakening the influence of Mideast countries and Russia.
Pembina was not, by corporate standards, the sort of colossal global company that routinely finds itself entangled in high-stakes geopolitics. The Oregon pipeline and export facility, in the U.S., no less would be its biggest undertaking by a mile. Unlike giants such as ExxonMobil or Shell, Pembina lacked the financing to bankroll such a project on its own. To raise construction money, it would need to show investors signed contracts with buyers. Scoring those long-term contracts in a competitive global market seemed unlikely, even before the pandemic quashed demand for North America’s highly priced gas. In the post-COVID-19 world, customers are few, and the competition for sales is fierce.
“Believe me, they’re all chasing the same limited number of buyers,” said Victoria Zaretskaya, a fuels analyst in the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The most logical purchasers of natural gas are in India, China and other Asian countries, she said. Those buyers are closer to cheaper gas from places like Russia, Qatar and Mozambique. Qatar controls 75% of global shipping for liquified natural gas. The effort to woo those few remaining customers, particularly when a company can’t compete on price, borders on the absurd, several analysts said.
“I’ve been to conferences where I would talk to some Japanese utility company representative, and they’re literally besieged by U.S. project developers,” Zaretskaya said. “It’s almost like you can’t reach the representatives from those companies, and they cannot get out — they’re sort of encircled by prospective sellers.”
While Zaretskaya found such scenes comical, the view of the situation from Gow’s land was anything but. Pembina’s pressure was unwavering and intensifying. Not only did the company want to traverse his land, but it also wanted access via the only road, the road to his home, as well as two pastures in which to stage construction for the pipeline.
Seen firsthand, Gow’s land appears to be an extreme, if not ridiculous, terrain for building much of anything, least of all a pipeline. Steep, verdant slopes in nearly all directions. As currently conceived, the Pacific Connector cuts a convenient path of least resistance through poor and rural communities. It skirts some, but not all, corporate-owned tree farms. It avoids the sovereign lands of Native American tribes in the region (although it does cross areas considered sacred and rich with culture). In this corner of Oregon, there are no urban centers that would register loud and powerful opposition to oil and gas. The only largish community the pipeline crosses — Coos Bay, population 16,415 — is desperate for whatever jobs the project might offer. Otherwise, the map is dotted with roving cattle ranches and farms and small properties — 5 acres here, 10 acres there — with many landowners presumably amenable to a buyout. If they aren’t, there’s always seizure.
When I asked oil and gas industry insiders why Pembina would push so hard for a project with such dismal economic prospects, they offered a startling explanation. Pembina doesn’t have to turn profit in real life, it only has to convince investors that there’s a chance, even a small one, that it will eventually succeed. Any proposal that attracts venture capital makes money, they said, even if the pipeline is never built, even if the market for natural gas remains depressed. So while most 2020 headlines about Jordan Cove forecast its demise, they miss the fact that people like Gow could still lose their land and foreign business interests could still get very rich, even if they never break ground. Riches can be gained and property can be taken based on the idea alone.
That paradox is at the heart of many seemingly implausible projects, according to Paul Sansone, a former energy executive who co-founded the PacifiCorp subsidiary Onsite Energy. “If I put together a proposal that can attract venture capital, I make money,” Sansone said. So do other developers, who can pay themselves handsomely while they pursue ideas that may never make it. The potential for profits on such proposals is large enough that investors come calling. By way of example, one similar idea, Sansone said, attracted $100 million in investment before it fell through. Had it succeeded, it could have paid for itself in one month, then operated at a profit for 20 years. The odds are always long, he said. But they are enough to attract money from investors looking for a windfall and willing to play a longshot.
And when it comes to pipelines, there are substantial incentives to chase those gains. The National Gas Act in the U.S. allows investors to recoup their spending on any gas infrastructure, plus 14% returns locked in when utilities raise rates on consumers. Under the law, they can collect those profits even if the pipeline is never used. Sellers of natural gas sign leases with pipeline owners that require payment even when the market stalls out. There is active, multibillion-dollar trading in energy companies, particularly after the 2005 Energy Policy Act made it possible for hedge funds to develop natural gas without the constraints on profits faced by publicly regulated utilities. Hedge funds, which are virtually unregulated ever since the act declassified natural gas developers as regulated utilities, can trade permits or bundles of land, just as Veresen sold its assets to Pembina in a $7.1 billion deal.
“These are speculative projects that are put together by hedge funds that are then flipped to the people who will operate them. Which is one of the reasons you can’t believe any promise they make,” Sansone said. This explains why Pembina has already told shareholders that it will sell 40% to 60% of its stake in Jordan Cove and the Pacific Connector. And why, in applications to governments, Pembina has told Canadian regulators its goal is to export Canadian gas, while telling American regulators that it aims to export American gas.
American LNG proponents know they aren’t part of the deal yet, but they like it anyway. Andrew Browning, who heads a coalition of Jordan Cove supporters that includes Western states, Colorado counties and the Ute Indian Tribe, said the prospect of any LNG export facility on American soil is an opportunity, even if the gas it proposes to transport comes from
Canada at the outset.
“Can I say for certain it’s going to be American gas up front? No,” Browning said. “But can I say for certain over the 30-year lifespan that a heck of a lot of American gas is going to be able to find a home in Asian markets through this facility? Yes. I can say that.” Like other supporters, Browning sees a future in which Asian nations need to quit coal and will want dependable LNG — and that they will want it from the politically stable U.S.
That vision is resolutely promoted by officials at the U.S. State and Energy departments, who publicly equate energy exports with national security. At a virtual signing of Pembina’s export license in July, Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette proclaimed it “a great day for American energy dominance.”
The shorter-term goal for Pembina executives, meanwhile, can be to earn as they go. Pembina is managed by five men from Calgary, Alberta, who last year earned $17.5 million in combined bonuses for running the company and keeping blue-sky projects like Jordan Cove alive. To Sansone, these developers are parasites of the economy, feeding on incentives for projects that never happen. From Gow’s perspective, all of this adds up to a rigged system that allows others to trade, if not toy with, his future, again and again for the rest of his days.
As the Jordan Cove project found new life under Pembina, Gow was drawn deeper into the opposition. He attended every meeting, in all four counties that the pipeline crossed, year after year. He spoke when he could and found his voice to be a greater skill than the computer — the internet still being somewhat foreign to him. Each time he attended an event, Pembina was always there, always with a booth or a table, land agents ready with a smile, drifting through the crowd.
“This is their business: to convince you to sign,” Gow said.
As Gow steeled himself for more of the work, more of the fight and the “way of life” he never wanted, he began to realize that he was connecting with people. Those oddballs and “Earth Babies”? All of them had become allies, and most had become friends. He had learned from them when the threat from Veresen was at its apex, back when “I didn’t know a state senator from a national senator.” And he was learning from them now, as Pembina began to bear down on the community.
But the person he connected with most frequently was on the other side of the country. Tim Gross owned a wooded, rural property in Pennsylvania. As was the case for Gow, Gross’ land also stood in the path of a pipeline. While surfing the internet one night in 2014 and reading about corporate seizure of land, Gross read about the Pacific Connector and landowners like Gow. Gross decided to reach out.
At first, Gow dismissed the caller as some kind of sham. But Gross kept calling, and eventually Gow understood. The message from this guy he had never met was unequivocal: Gross and his neighbors had been in the same predicament. So had others. One family in northeast Pennsylvania, for example, farmers who tapped maple trees to make syrup, watched as crews cut 558 of their trees to make way for a pipeline. The project was controversial enough that armed federal marshals were deployed to defend the tree-cutting crew. A few weeks later, the family learned that regulators had denied the permits for the pipeline and it would never be built.
Gross, a retired business owner, was self-taught on the issues of FERC and the many loopholes that companies like Pembina are so good at exploiting. One such rule was called a tolling order: When Gross and other landowners in Pennsylvania were opposing a local pipeline project, FERC issued what is known as a tolling order that blocks court challenges to its approvals until the commission itself has a chance to reexamine the issue. Such orders effectively cut off concerned landowners from using the courts to protect their land. In the meantime, corporations can begin taking it. In a review of tolling-order incidents, the U.S Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit identified 74 other cases in 12 years where this maneuver was used to block pipeline opponents from court — 99% of all such cases. And in 64% of those cases, local authorities authorized construction to begin anyway.
For Gow, the stories Gross shared felt like a glimpse of his own future. The forecast was ominous, but Gow also wondered if there were lessons to be learned that he and southern Oregon’s motley group of resistors could use in their fight against the Pacific Connector. “I thought, at first, knowing that he already knew what happens, that that would really help us not make the same mistakes,” he said.
In November 2018, at the urging of a think tank called the Niskanen Center, Gow traveled to Washington, D.C., twice to testify in front of congressional staffers. At one point, he found himself bewitched by the office of Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., decorated as it was with familiar visages of ranch life, then found himself far from his comfort zone in the office of Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., which included, appallingly, someone’s dog.
When Gow testified to federal staffers, though, flanked by other landowners, he showed pictures of his granddaughter, then age 2, leading a horse with her 1-year-old brother atop. Gow talked about life on his ranch, what the values of that life meant to him and to his family. He tried to get the Capital Beltway types to understand what the landowners were going through, the threats, uncertainty and loss of self-determination. Afterward, he leaned his elbows on a railing inside a rotunda in the building and looked down at a smooth marble floor below. An attorney from the Niskanen Center approached him and said he was interested in his case and wanted to take it on, pro bono.
“I said: ‘You don’t understand. We don’t have any money,’” Gow said. “I didn’t know what pro bono meant.”
In the months that followed, Niskanen filed a lawsuit against FERC on behalf of Gow and 22 of his neighbors. But while Gow was doing his best to keep up with the pipeline project and the small-but-vocal effort to stop it, Pembina was still on the offensive. Applying for federal permits to take people’s land was only the first step. Lobbying was another. The company’s broader strategy was to rewire the political landscape of Oregon communities.
Since buying Veresen and the Jordan Cove project, Pembina’s American subsidiary, Jordan Cove Energy Project LLC, funneled campaign cash to state legislators and county commissioners and contributed more than 60% of the money to a newly hatched political action committee active in local elections. The company’s grants program also began funding local businesses with small amounts of funds and offering landowner grants as well. Jordan Cove Energy Project LLC also paid Coos County $25,000 a month for use of a county pipeline. It also held a fundraiser for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, offered grants to local organizations and even funded its own booster group. The company began sending mailers to residents as well, complete with slogans about good neighbors and prosperity, featuring pictures of guys in flannel shirts and families around campfires.
The company meanwhile funded sheriff’s deputies in strapped-for-cash Coos County, officers who doubled as security for the future facility at Jordan Cove, and equipment such as an “acoustic sound cannon” and drones for dispersing crowds, as well as software to monitor the social media accounts of activists. Following an expose detailing the deputies’ surveillance of landowners and pipeline protesters, attorneys from the Niskanen Center filed public information requests. The results turned up photos of at least one vocal landowner, Deb Evans, who had led the opposition with deep research of the natural gas industry alongside her husband, Ron Schaaf. She was standing on a bridge in Coos County with other activists, holding a sign, having just hiked the pipeline route in protest.
Later, when a concerned landowner complained that elderly widows were being harangued by land agents pressing the women to sell, the office of Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., spurred an investigation. The landowner wouldn’t talk to the FBI agent who responded, though. The FBI agent served on a sheriff’s office task force, convened to protect Jordan Cove, with some of the same deputies whose salaries were being paid by Pembina.
Gow was, and still is, awed by the effort and money that companies such as Pembina spend on what he describes as psychological warfare, and on the broader effort to squeeze profits out of what he views as cockamamie business schemes. “And they’ve got 100 lawyers,” he told me later. “We can’t afford a quarter of a lawyer — you know what I mean?”
Meanwhile, the land agents kept calling; cutting a check for someone’s land is almost always cheaper — and certainly quicker — than using the legal system to take it. So Pembina representatives dangled checks in front of people who had never seen that kind of money. One after another, Gow’s fellow oppositionists began to sell.
“You start spending that money in your mind,” Gow said. “They convince you that your life’s going to be better with that money. And once you see yourself spending that money, it’s hard to go back.” Slowly the numbers pitched up. Hundreds of thousands of dollars. More than half a million dollars. Up to a million dollars or more, some said, but the company encouraged them not to talk once they had taken it.
Gow never spent the money in his mind. They offered him $14,400 sometime after the day he told the land agent never to come back. “Who’d want to give up this lifestyle?” Gow asked me when I visited his ranch in July. “I’m not sure I’d do it for $14 million.” To be honest, he said, he doesn’t even know what he would do with that kind of money. He only likes cheap beer, he said. Plus, “I can already get a hamburger anywhere I want.”
Watching other landowners sell out, his county commission slowly bought and state senators reluctant to take on Pembina, Gow doesn’t know how much longer the community will hold out. He spends a lot of time on the phone these days, waking at 5 a.m. to make calls to fellow activists, legislators, Gross, other landowners, his attorney — all before ranch chores begin. After dark, he will spend a few more hours on the phone, before turning in around 11 p.m.
“I don’t know how this is going to end,” he said. He doesn’t even know what would bring him satisfaction at this point. “It’s like having an ex-wife. I’ve never had an ex-wife. But I might soon,” he added, noting this is only half a joke, that the strain of this experience has been tough on his marriage. Long hours on the phone. Days with no time to do anything but fight. Every minute lost, a minute they gain on you. After 16 years, Gow wonders if maybe this is just who he has become, the guy fighting the phantom pipeline that is a real threat.
They haven’t started to take his land — not yet — though they can begin any day. And thanks to Gross’ neighbors, two families who took their fight all the way to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, FERC has been told it can’t indefinitely block landowners from taking their cases to courts. The ruling makes it harder for companies to cut trees and plow roads before all appeals are heard and permits are in place — a decision that constitutes a significant victory for individual property owners.
For now, that’s not the case for Jordan Cove and the Pacific Connector. The state of Oregon is still withholding those two critical permits, but Pembina has asked the Department of Commerce to override the state’s authority. Then on June 1, Trump signed an executive order curtailing the rights of states, tribes and the public to object to possible waterway pollution from energy projects, an order that could negate the need for the very permit Oregon is withholding.
Wyden and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., have meanwhile proffered legislation that would, among other things, limit the amount of time a company could sit on condemned land before building and would also eliminate bait-and-switch projects that grab land for one thing, then use it for another. If and when that legislation will ever make it to the floor for a vote is anyone’s guess.
In mid-March, Gow was out in the field when he learned that FERC had approved Pembina’s federal permit in the 2-1 online vote. He was standing beside his ATV when he got a call from Ron Schaaf, a fellow landowner whom Gow had met back when the fight was younger, when they were all younger. Schaaf gave him the bad news.
For the better part of a week, Gow wandered his ranch, unable to focus, struggling to shake the mood that overtook him. He likens the experience to teenage heartbreak, to how painful it is to learn that things may not turn out the way you planned. “You can’t believe how many times I’ve had my heart broke on this deal,” Gow said. Each time he thought it was finally over, the pipeline just came back.
Still, despite FERC’s decision to approve the pipeline, the longtime conservative said he plans to vote for Trump again in 2020. He was unsure for a while, but then presidential candidate Joe Biden chose Kamala Harris as his running mate — a choice Gow saw as based on politics, not qualifications. Besides, he said, it’s not like corporations will loosen their stranglehold on government just because a new president is elected. “We’ve been left without a choice.”
Lead phoro: Bill Gow rides on his property in Douglas County, Oregon, on July 27. The Pacific Connector pipeline would cut through his land. (Alex Milan Tracy)