Vigil for Community Safety Promotes Faith-Based Opposition to GTN Pipeline Expansion
News Story by John McCallum | FāVS News
It’s probably safe to say nobody wakes up in the morning hoping for increased fire danger in their neighborhood, or heightened risk of a natural gas explosion near their children’s school or playground.
“Did you wake up wanting these things?” Earth Ministry Interfaith Power and Light advocacy manager Sarah Robinson asked the gathering of 30-plus people at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Spokane on a chilly, calm Nov. 5 Sunday night.
The attendees at the Vigil for Community Safety — who ranged from elementary school children to grandparents — responded with a full-throated, unified “No!”
“On the other hand, when I woke up today, I prayed for safety for this community,” Robinson said. “For people like us who care enough to show up when there is a chance to learn, act and bring attention to community concerns.”
Expressing Grief and Hope
The Nov. 5 vigil — held in opposition to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) Oct. 19 approval of capacity expansion for a pipeline carrying natural gas from Canada through the Inland Northwest to California — was part lament and part hope and call for action.
Lament for the destructive impacts to the environment and society projects such as Gas Transmission Northwest’s (GTN) capacity expansion can have on all living things. Hope and action that gatherings such as the vigil help create awareness of the threats and the need to undergo change so that, as Robinson said, “communities can be made whole.”
“We are just trying to make our presence known and bear witness that there are people who are concerned about this,” vigil attendee Bob Lloyd said.
The vigil consisted of attendees gathering around two concentric half circles marked by paper bags with non-flammable, battery-powered candles placed inside. Robinson said the circles are a visual representation of the dangers posed by the GTN pipeline expansion — with the inner circle of six bags depicting current conditions and the larger, 20-bag outer circle the widening risk from more gas running through the over 62-year-old pipeline.
As the late-afternoon sunlight faded, attendees holding battery-powered candles, gathered in a semicircle outside the larger arc of bags. After remarks by Robinson, the vigil commenced with reading of a “Land Acknowledgement” by St. Mark’s member Janet Farness, recognizing Earth Ministry and other groups work “within the unceded territories” of the First Nations, that the Spokane Tribe of Indians still tend the land and continuing importance of the practice.
“Land acknowledgement is one way to resist erasure of Indigenous histories, as well as to honor tribes and the land itself,” Farness read.
Testimony to Danger
Farness was one of three speakers at the vigil. Besides being a member of St. Mark’s, where she teamed with pastor Edwin Weber to form the “Stewards of Creation” team, Farness is a resident of Liberty Lake’s River District, living about a mile west of where the GTN pipeline passes through the city.
The capacity expansion approved by FERC enables GTN — owned by Canadian energy producer TC Energy, operators of the Keystone pipeline — to upgrade its pumping capacity to move an additional 150 million cubic feet of natural gas daily through the pipeline. GTN is almost doubling the pumping capabilities of natural gas-powered compressors at stations in Athol, Idaho, Starbuck, west of Walla Walla in southeast Washington and Kent in southeast Oregon.
GTN’s Starbuck compressor facility is ranked as the 45th worst polluter in Washington state out of over 100 polluters, emitting 90,620 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. By contrast, Avista Utilities natural gas system is 10th at over 1.05 million tons of CO2 annually.
GTN operates 612 miles of the 1,377-mile-long pipeline, which according to a February 2023 Washington State Department of Ecology Stormwater Compliance Inspection Report, is two pipelines running in parallel, one 36 inches in diameter and the other 42 inches.
The pipeline can handle transporting up to 2.7 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas, gas Farness said passes close to places where Spokane County residents “live, learn, pray and play.” Farness said the pipeline runs near her three-and-a-half-year-old grandson’s violin teacher’s house in Otis Orchards as well as the library and Otis Orchards Community Church.
It also passes south under the Spokane River, near a 55-plus retirement community, under Harvard Road, south of new businesses and residential development, through the middle of the Bitterroot Apartment complex, west near Cornerstone Pentecostal Church then south, passing under Mission Avenue east Kramer Parkway and Selkirk Middle School, underneath Interstate 90 east of Ridgeline High School and on through southeast Spokane Valley and the county.
Farness reminded vigil attendees of the dangers the pipeline and its station in Athol could experience from natural and manmade disasters like wildfires. In August, a 60-acre fire forced the evacuation of the entire town, and Farness pointed out that Silverwood Amusement Park, which sees around 800,000 visitors a year, is just south of Athol on U.S. Highway 95 and would be affected by any accident that might occur at GTN’s compressor station.
“As my husband reminded me, with an explosion, nobody gets a warning,” Farness said. “They would all be at greater risk if there was a hiccup in Athol.”
Farness added increased natural gas pumped through the pipeline will result in an increase of greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions.
“That’s nothing to be proud of when as a faith-filled, loving community we’re committed to going the opposite way with gases,” she added.
Emissions Form Basis for Appeal
It’s these emissions that are partly the basis for a petition for rehearing of FERC’s decision by the environmental protection organizations Columbia Riverkeeper and Rogue Climate. The two nonprofits are among a number of regional environmental and social justice groups, along with Washington, Oregon and California attorneys general and other elected officials, that originally filed letters and briefs with FERC in August 2022 in opposition to the GTN expansion.
Columbia Riverkeeper staff attorney Audrey Leonard said in a Nov. 7 interview the organization and Rogue Climate are working on meeting a Nov. 22 deadline for the petition for rehearing. She said an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) prepared for the commission pointed out the potential for additional greenhouse gas emissions both downstream, where the pipeline delivers product to utilities, and upstream at its production and transportation points.
The EIS estimated the proposed GTN natural gas capacity increase would result in an additional 1.9 million metric tons of greenhouse gases discharged annual, if all the gas were combusted. It placed an estimated “social costs” for these gases ranging from just over $739 million to almost $8.81 billion.
In its approval document, commissioners, while acknowledging the impacts from greenhouse gases, wrote that calculating GHGs social costs does not help them “determine credibly whether the reasonably foreseeable GHG emissions associated with a project are significant or not significant in terms of their impact on global climate change.”
They also stated the EIS failed to provide, and they could not find, useful criteria to monetize the impacts of greenhouse gases. They added that the Washington, D.C., federal court has repeatedly backed the commission’s decisions “to use the social cost of carbon” to determine significance.
“That’s one of the major flaws in the EIS in our perspective,” Leonard said, adding the “downstream emissions were discounted.”
As for upstream emissions, the commission didn’t acknowledge these as an outcome of GTNs expanded capacity request, writing environmental effects stemming from natural gas production are “generally neither caused by a proposed pipeline project nor are they reasonably foreseeable consequences of our approval of an infrastructure project.”
It cited lack of information showing the project leading to additional production of natural gas from its three suppliers, despite GTN’s application comments it had secured contracts with regional natural gas users — including those serviced by the three suppliers — for the additional supply to meet demand.
“They (FERC) didn’t look closely at the future, not the full picture of the future,” Leonard said.
Coming Together to Fix Brokenness
While nonprofit organizations use the administrative and legal steps to try to protect the environment, two other speakers at the Nov. 5 vigil spoke of a faith-based approach to action and care.
Environmental engineer and Salem Lutheran Church member Katrina Martich said when she was asked to speak at the gathering by Robinson she began thinking about “why are we here as people of faith?” Martich, who was consecrated in ministry in 2019 by the Lutheran Diaconal Association, uses theology and science in her ministry counseling people on practicing spiritual discipline in the care of creation.
In answer to her question, Martich thought of the Christian practice of “communal lament,” a practice of “coming together and expressing to a higher power, what I call God, of our shared anger, grief, dismay and frustration with the brokenness of the world.” She spoke about the injustice of the energy system, and how this and the risks of pipeline failure and greater negative impacts of climate change fell on those least able to deal with the issues.
“We lament that those bearing the risks are not the ones benefiting from the gas or the profits,” she said, adding the vigil was a way to visually draw attention to these impacts.
“It’s a way of coming together and saying, ‘We as people of faith don’t accept this brokenness, so we come together and lament the pain of human existence and we trust that God laments with us,’” Martich said. “That this brokenness is not the desire of a loving and just God, and we stand to witness that there is a better way.”
A Required Covenant with a Creator
In a collaborative presentation, Karen Stromgren, executive director of Muslims for Community Action and Support (MCAS) along with community activist and current climate justice program director at the Lands Council Naghmana Sherazi — who could not be at the vigil — spoke to the Islamic emphasis on caring for the environment.
Stromgren said the Quran portrays an integrated view of the universe where humans and the environment are all part of a living, conscience, whole universe, and “therefore it exhorts men live a balanced, moderate and eco-friendly life without causing harm to nature.” She cited Quran 2:60’s admonition: “Do not commit abuse on Earth, spreading corruption.”
“God does not like corruption,” she said.
Stromgren defined a wide varieties of human activities as examples of corruption, ranging from deforestation to the use of toxic chemicals, pesticides and improper disposing of toxic wastes. The first guiding principle of Islamic environmental teaching in sustainability is a concept of trusteeship, of being a guardian, and not engaging in environmentally harmful practices.
“A human being should take all necessary steps to ensure that the entrusted property is passed on to the next generation in pure form, a form as pure as possible according to the Islamic God,” Stromgren said. “Nature is a divine trust, and man is the trustee.”
Nature belongs to all living things, Stromgren said, and Islam seeks to integrate this concept of life in every believer.
Discussion for Change
In closing, Robinson told the gathering at St. Mark’s parking lot that they inhabited a space of change as change makers. It is a place where people initiate change not in response to how others are changing the landscape, but change that can be made together as people of faith.
“People of faith, people of conscience, make this country what it is,” she said.
The vigil ended with the attendees moving inside the outer semicircle of lights, milling about and shaking hands as they sang “Amazing Grace.” The move portrayed actions amid unity, ideas brought together through love of the environment and desire to protect it as a covenant with creation.
“Hopefully, it will lead to a further discussion of actions,” vigil attendee Bob Lloyd said.
John McCallum is a freelance writer living in Liberty Lake. A graduate of Eastern Washington University with degrees in Journalism and Radio-Television, John spent 21 years at the Cheney Free Press as an award-winning staff reporter, editor, managing editor and photojournalist; writing and photographing people, places and things ranging from government to education, sports, religion and current affairs. He is a member of Spokane’s Knox Presbyterian Church, has served as a church leader on session and participated in worship through a variety of roles ranging from pulpit speaking to the Knox Drama Team. He is a member of the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest Guatemala Task Force, making six mission trips to that Central American country. John enjoys time with his wife, Sheila, and their Dachshund, Lacey, at home and on the road — especially the Oregon Coast — along with running, biking and kayaking.