Voters in Oregon's Coos County are considering a May ballot measure that would block the Jordan Cove liquefied natural gas project.
The measure is a product of the community-rights movement, which broadly aims to give local communities final say over corporate projects that affect them.
The Coos County measure specifically targets and bans fossil fuel transport through the county, except when it is intended for local use. It establishes a county-wide bill of rights that guarantees a "sustainable energy future" and the rights of nature to thrive.
"What we’ve been doing isn’t really working," says measure co-petitioner Mary Geddry. "So we have to get to a point where… a community can say, 'We’re not going to negotiate how many toxins or poisons we’re willing to accept in the air,' which is what happens when you work through the regulatory process."
The Coos County measure and larger community-rights movement stem from a feeling of frustration and powerlessness when faced with controversial industry activity.
"We are being abused for corporate profit. That is not acceptable. I don’t think that’s acceptable in any community,” said Nancy Ward, a board member of the state community rights umbrella group, Oregon Community Rights Network.
The Jordan Cove liquefied natural gas export terminal and pipeline project is owned by the Canadian company Veresen. Federal energy regulators blocked the project last year, but the company has reapplied for permits. The Trump Administration has voiced support for the project, though the final decision will fall to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Support for the project has been mixed. Proponents tout job creation and economic development. Some opponents don’t want additional fossil fuel development, others oppose the probable use of eminent domain (the forced taking of private property) by a foreign corporation along the pipeline route.
A similar measure in Lincoln County would block aerial pesticide spraying. Residents in Columbia County are using the community rights framework to try to block oil trains. Local organizers there are currently collecting signatures to put that measure on the next ballot.
Coos Bay Mayor Joe Benetti is a committee member of Save Coos Jobs, a PAC formed to oppose the Coos County measure. He says he understands the feelings of powerlessness supporters of the measure feel.
“I totally agree with some of their sentiment that they want to make sure they have a discussion in this. And I think they have and I think they need to continue to do that,” he said.
But Benetti says this measure is not the way to accomplish those goals.
“It’s going to give a wrong impression that we’re not open for business,” he says.
The Coos County measure has drawn major attention from the corporate backers of the Jordan Cove Project. As of May 5, Jordan Cove Energy Project LP has contributed nearly $360,000 to "no" campaign.
By contrast the committee supporting the measure, Yes on Measure 6-162, has raised just over $12,000.
If the measure does pass, it will tread on some untested legal territory. It will also come up against constitutional law – namely the supremacy clause.
"Essentially what it states is that federal laws supersede state and local laws. And that’s a real foundation to our legal structure," said Greg Dotson, a law professor at the University of Oregon.
Congress and the federal government have the authority to regulate interstate commerce – things like natural gas pipelines.
"This ballot initiative is simply not going to be able to wrest that authority away," he said, adding it would likely not stand up if challenged in court.
But Dotson said there is some uncertainty, because the measure contains a severability provision – meaning even if a court strikes down a piece of the measure, the other provisions would still stand.
"It’s not clear to me what would be left, so you could end up with some activities withstanding judicial scrutiny that would create certain unlawful acts," Dotson said.
Sorting this all out would take time and money.
Still measure supporter Mary Geddry says there is value in pursuing Measure 6-162 and the community-rights concept as a way of combating corporate influence and money.
"Ultimately we have to test this concept that people have a right to protect their air and their water and their environment," she said. "If we don’t challenge the current system of law…. Then what are we doing?"