By Shayne Hayes, Sam Silberberger, Derek Swithenbank, and Kt Wirth
In a Sociology and Anthropology course this Fall focused on the intersections of environment, culture, and society, students were tasked with researching an environmental justice case in Oregon, using the Environmental Justice Atlas, a collaborative bank of global environmental justice cases, as a model. Students identified a range of environmental justice issues in Oregon, including transportation access and impacts in BIPOC communities and the uneven impacts of summer heat and wildfire smoke on vulnerable populations. Following are student reports on two cases, both focused on a hot-button issue: the transportation of fossil fuels in Oregon.
The first environmental justice case is that of the Mosier Oil Train derailment that happened in 2016. Mosier Oregon is a small town of about 500 people, where there is usually not much happening. However, in the summer of 2016, this small community was affected by the mismanagement of the transportation of crude oil by a much bigger corporation: The Union Pacific Railroad Company, a corporation that has transported oil throughout the Pacific Northwest for decades, and has had 800 different safety violations within a two year span on their freight lines. This accident was no different, as it detailed sixteen oil-tankers overturning and spilling oil into the surrounding soil, and the adjacent river close to the tracks. With this oil spill came a huge fire that resulted in many of the residents being evacuated as it was close to their homes and families. This accident was due to Union Pacific Railroad not maintaining routine checks on their trains and railways, as there were loose bolts found on the scene that were deemed to have been the leading cause for the derailed tankers. Thankfully, the residents were able to return to their homes after a few short days, but the accident had been too close to their community, and many people, including the mayor of Mosier, are immensely outspoken about oil transportation to this day.
The second environmental justice case is the expansion of the Gas Transmission Northwest (GTN) pipeline, through a project called GTN Xpress. On October 19, 2023, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved this widely-opposed pipeline expansion project, which seeks to import an additional 150 million cubic feet of fracked natural gas per day into the Pacific Northwest. The company behind the project, TC Energy, will accomplish this expansion through modifications to existing compressor stations in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. Notably, TC Energy is the same company that was behind the notorious Keystone XL pipeline. The GTN Xpress expansion directly contradicts states’ emission goals and will disproportionately impact low-income and vulnerable populations across the region through intensified climate impacts and increased reliance on natural gas infrastructure. In its analysis of the project’s environmental impacts, FERC recognizes the global cost of burning the additional natural gas that would be supplied by the project – estimated at $8.8 billion in climate damages – but deems these considerations outside the scope of its Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS). Because of this, the communities most affected by the pipeline expansion project have little input into how the resulting environmental harms are distributed. From an environmental justice perspective, this can be considered a procedural injustice, disempowering communities that should have a voice in the decision-making process.
As these cases illustrate, fossil fuels – whether it be oil or natural gas – are controversial for their environmental impacts, both past and future. Often, the communities with the least power to organize and challenge decision-making around the transportation of fossil fuels are also the most negatively impacted. We are living through a turbulent yet exciting time where we have the opportunity to make Oregon a more sustainable and just place to live, through an equitable phasing out of fossil fuels. If you’re interested in getting involved at SOU, join the Student Sustainability team to encourage sustainable methods and social equality in and around campus.