Environmental groups have accused a natural gas plant developer of starting construction in Umatilla County without the proper permit in order to avoid paying higher fees for carbon emissions.
They’re asking state environmental regulators to hold the company accountable and consider denying the project’s permits.
The Perennial Wind Chaser Station is a 415-megawatt natural gas power plant that was required to begin construction in September to meet a regulatory deadline set by the Oregon Energy Facility Siting Council.
The developer behind the plant, Perennial-WindChaser LLC, is part of the Japanese company Sumitomo. It started building a road to meet that deadline, but it didn’t have the stormwater permit it needed to do so, according to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
The agency has issued an enforcement order and is now taking public comments on the permit the company needs to do the work.
If it’s built, the gas plant is expected to generate the equivalent of 1 million tons of carbon dioxide every year, which would make it one of the state’s largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions.
The Oregon Department of Energy recently approved higher fees for carbon emissions in response to Gov. Kate Brown’s executive order on climate change.
Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director for Columbia Riverkeeper, said Perennial-WindChaser rushed to build the road without a stormwater permit to make sure it could continue operating under its original EFSEC approval and avoid paying the higher carbon fees, which are nearly twice as high as the old fees.
“So, moving forward Perennial would save a lot of money if they can build quickly under their old permit,” he said.
VandenHeuvel said the Oregon Department of Energy is breaking its own rules in allowing the company to proceed under its 2015 site certificate when it didn’t meet the requirements for beginning construction before Sept. 23.
“We don’t understand why Oregon would throw this lifeline to a fracked gas power plant when we should be promoting clean energy,” he said.
His group filed a legal challenge against the agency for that decision, arguing the agency should have let the old permit expire because the company hadn’t met its requirements for starting construction.
The Oregon Department of Energy declined to comment on the status of the project because of that litigation.
Another Sumitomo subsidiary, Perennial Power Holdings, is a co-owner of the Hermiston Generating plant, a 474-megawatt natural gas power plant adjacent to the Wind Chaser project site.
In its project application, the company described the plant as an energy source that will help balance “the irregular and volatile wind-generated electricity produced along the Columbia River, which will help stabilize the electric power grid in the area and make it more attractive for further renewables development.” But the company has struggled to find a buyer for the power the Wind Chaser plant would generate and got an extension on its development timeline from the state in 2018.
JJ Jamieson, vice president of operations with Perennial Power Holdings, said in a written response that his company has confirmation from the Oregon Department of Energy that it has met the conditions for “Phase 1 Construction” in its site certificate because it started construction before the Sept. 23 deadline.
“Perennial Power Holdings is pleased to move forward in the next steps of the Wind Chaser Station project, on our way to providing the Northwest with reliable energy that will set the stage for sustainable energy technologies in the future,” Jamieson said. “As has always been our practice, we are working within all legal requirements and state regulations laid out by the Oregon Department of Energy, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and other organizations to meet the conditions of our certificate.”
While the company still has EFSC approval to proceed with construction, some of the company’s other permits have passed their expiration dates, including a construction permit from DEQ.
On Thursday, Dan Serres with Columbia Riverkeeper told the state Environmental Quality Commission that environmental regulators should take a close look at the company’s development plans as they’re considering approval of additional permits.
“We urge DEQ to refrain from a piecemeal, haphazard permitting process for a project that could generate a massive pollution impact,” Serres told the commission. “We know that the emissions from their smokestack will be 1 million tons. But we also know that the unseen fracking process, the methane pollution that goes with it, and the communities that are impacted by the pollution, all of these aspects are lost in the shuffle unless DEQ and EQC consider them carefully.”