Power culture and the land
By Camilla Mortensen
Food is energy, but in America’s quest for energy to power everything from iPhones to our cars, that idea falls by the wayside. The quest for fuel to power our world may well be coming at the expense of food that powers our very lives.
The farms that feed us are feeling the effects of the push for fuel, from fracking to biofuels. Some farms are converting from food to fuel production, others face eminent domain and the prospect of losing their land, and still others are alarmed about contamination from energy projects.
Natural gas has been touted as a “bridge fuel” that can lead us away from coal’s dirty power and toward cleaner-burning natural gas for our electricity as well as home and water heating needs. The idea is that we will gradually make our way to renewables like wind and solar power. But the current demand for natural gas and drilling in rural areas is having an effect on farms and landowners thanks to recent technology for getting natural gas out of rock where it is trapped. “Fracking” or hydraulic fracturing involves injecting chemicals and water into rock as it is drilled. The practice now occurs in about 34 states, and opponents charge it contaminates groundwater and may even be linked to recent earthquakes.
In April 2010, wastewater from a fracked well leaked through its plastic liner and flowed onto a cow pasture in Pennsylvania. Farmers Don and Carol Johnson found the leak and the hoof prints of 28 beef cattle that had wandered through the contaminated water. The spill killed all vegetation in the 30 by 40 foot area, and tests showed the water contained chloride, iron, sulfate, barium, magnesium, manganese, potassium, sodium, strontium and calcium. Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture quarantined the cows, worried that the resulting beef could be tainted. A year later the farmers reported that eight of 11 calves born to those cows were either stillborn or born weak and soon died.
Natural gas and fracking have been an issue in the Eastern U.S., but its tendrils reach the West Coast too via gas pipelines. Once the gas is extracted from the earth it is sent throughout the country through a network of natural gas pipelines. For West Coast farmers, the words “liquefied natural gas” or LNG has as ominous a tone as fracking does to those in the east. LNG is natural gas that has been cooled to -260 degrees Fahrenheit to become a clear, odorless liquid. When natural gas is cooled to a liquid it occupies 600 times less space than in its gaseous form, making it easier and more cost effective to ship long distances. It is then converted back into gas when put into pipelines.
Landowners and farmers in Oregon have been fighting several proposed LNG terminals and their associated gas pipelines after California defeated several proposals. The pipelines were originally proposed as import terminals that would bring LNG in domestically from foreign sources.
In order to get the land for these gas pipelines, the federal government has authorized the use of eminent domain. This means a governmental or quasi-governmental body, such as an energy company, hospital or airport, can take privately owned land, as long as the land will benefit the public and the owner is paid a fair price it.
But what is a fair price? Francis Eatherington co-owns a farm near Coos Bay, Ore. that is slated to have a pipeline, the Pacific Connector, from the proposed Jordan Cove LNG terminal, run through it. The land, called Owl Farm, is part of the nonprofit Oregon Women’s Land Trust, and Eatherington said it exists for women who don’t otherwise have access to land. The farm is flanked by properties, also slated for the pipeline, which belong to farmers who depend on their land to make their living. Eatherington said that in exchange for permanently putting a pipeline on her land, she would be given only 25 percent of the land’s value. A one-time payment of about $900, she said, is what the farm will receive for a permanent pipeline. There are about 700 landowners that would be affected by Jordan Cove’s Pacific Connector Pipeline.
Susan Jane Brown of the Western Environmental Law Center, which has been fighting the Coos Bay LNG terminal and pipeline, said, “The concern is that because the pipeline right-of-way route would go through a property used for production of food, that acreage would go out of production.” She added that the land above pipelines is maintained vegetation free and the use of pesticides and herbicides by the company that owns the pipelines is a concern for organic farmers. Not to mention, she said, the worries farmers face about what happens if a pipeline leaks or catches fire.
Oregon hazelnut farmer Steve Wick has faced two proposed pipelines running through his farm, and he said the pipelines would decimate his farm, his retirement dream. Because pipes are buried just three feet below the ground, farmers can’t plant deep-rooted crops over them. If Wick and his wife Carol were to plant the hazelnut and grape orchards they had planned, a 100-to 150-foot swath would be cut through the crop for the construction of the pipelines. Wick said that even after construction the pipelines’ 50-foot permanent right-of-way cuts through his planned crops.
The proposed pipelines total about 350 miles of pipe, with 50-foot right-of-ways along them through farms and forests and under rivers. The direct amount of farmland affected might be small, but the cost to the farms and farmers’ livelihoods would be great.
It was eminent domain and the threats to farms and to water that led to President Obama to delay the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline on Nov. 10. Michael O’Leary, an organizing consultant to the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that like LNG pipelines, the Keystone XL is a private energy project, and like natural gas lines, it can leak. On Nov. 6, several thousand protesters encircled the White House and demanded President Obama say no to the 1,700-mile pipeline that crosses through family farms and an aquifer that O’Leary said is the nation’s largest water supply and source of irrigation. The $7 billion project would carry Canadian tar sands oil to U.S. refineries, and like the natural gas pipelines, O’Leary said the oil would be for export, not to meet U.S. energy needs.
Dan Serres of Columbia Riverkeeper said that one of the driving forces that helped his group put the brakes on one of the proposed LNG terminals on the Columbia River, called Bradwood Landing, was that the impact on farms would have been so direct that farmers have rose up against it. “It’s the exact worst thing you could propose through these the rural communities,” he said.
Natural gas pipelines aren’t the only fossil fuel friction in town. U.S. coal exports to China aren’t grabbing land from farmers, but rather they are affecting infrastructure. Coal mining giants Ambre Energy and Arch Coal want to export millions of tons a coal a year. The coal would be mined in the United States then sent by long, slow trains to proposed coal export terminals anywhere from Coos Bay, Ore., to Bellingham, Wash. Serres said the Columbia Basin, a huge grain producing and exporting area, would be affected by longer wait times for trains on lines glutted with coal cars. “If you have a rail line going near a crop you hope to use for food, it’s going to be a problem because it’s a huge amount of coal dust that blows off these cars.”
Serres said about a pound of coal dust comes off a car per mile. “For a 500-mile trip, that’s tons of coal dust,” he said. Serres said, unlike LNG, farmers have not yet developed an understanding of how the rail lines will impact them.
Tons of coal going through Oregon each day is a bit ironic, given that the state’s one coal-burning power plant is due to stop burning the fossil fuel by 2020. Rather than shut down, Portland General Electric, which runs the plant in Boardman is looking to giant cane as a future energy source. But in order to produce the plants for power, food growing might be displaced. PGE projects that between 60,000 and 90,000 irrigated acres would be converted from food or feed production to giant cane production. Giant cane (Arundo donax) yields high volumes of biomass but is considered an invasive species through much of the U.S. But in its assessment, PGE said, “Giant cane will not be planted near running water where it can aggressively displace native streamside vegetation and the wildlife that depends on that ecosystem. Giant cane can be eliminated by the denial of water, the natural condition of the Boardman area.”
In the battle over biofuels, the word “biomass” has become almost a dirty word, associated with burning trees and air pollution. But the energy scene isn’t entirely grim. Many sewage treatment plants and landfills already transform human waste into methane power and anaerobic digestion has been proposed as a way to deal with all manner of organic wastes. Some farmers are at the forefront of turning poop into power (see We can poo it!, page 12.) and as the farmers who have halted LNG terminals and pipelines have shown, standing up for the family farm can make a difference in our energy future.
Camilla Mortensen is the environmental reporter for the Eugene Weekly.