Two controversial energy projects in the Columbia River Gorge area could move forward as the result of a ruling by the Oregon Supreme Court.
The court's Jan. 15 ruling concerns administrative rules adopted in 2018 by the state Energy Facilities Siting Council, which oversees and imposes conditions on the construction and operation of large energy projects. The rules would have changed the process for the certification of energy sites and drew a challenge by conservation group Friends of the Columbia Gorge.
In 2019, the court determined that the rules were invalid after Friends of the Columbia Gorge argued that the council didn't follow the right procedures in adopting them. In response, the council adopted nearly identical rules but on a temporary basis.
Friends of the Columbia Gorge, joined by other conservation groups, again challenged the rules. But the court found that the state could legally adopt the rules on a temporary basis.
Nathan Baker, staff attorney for Friends of the Columbia Gorge, said that his group's primary concern was that the way the rules were adopted shut out the public and made it difficult for citizens to participate. "That's never a good thing," he said. "There needs to be transparency and an open public process."
He said the temporary rules were used to advance two controversial projects that have drawn hundreds of public comments in opposition. He said the state authorization for both projects were issued years ago and would have expired if not for amendments allowed under the contested rules.
One project affected is the Summit Ridge Wind Project, proposed for a site 14 miles southeast of The Dalles in Wasco County. According to the state council's website, the project would include 72 wind turbines that would have a peak generating capacity of 194 megawatts that would be sold to the Bonneville Power Administration.
Friends of the Columbia Gorge contended the project would impair views along the lower Deschutes River and the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, in addition to harming bald and golden eagles. The state council certified the project in 2011. LotusWorks, the Vancouver, Washington, company behind it, has been granted multiple amendments to its certification.
The second is the Perennial Wind Chaser Station, a natural gas facility that would produce up to 415 megawatts of electrical power on approximately 20 acres in Umatilla County, according to the council's website. According to its application, the facility would be used to compensate for when wind energy can't meet demand for electricity.
Baker said that there were concerns that the natural gas facility pollute air in the gorge. Representatives for the project could not be reached for comment.
Both projects need to be completed by 2023. But Baker said there are doubts that the companies are even actively pursuing the projects.
Steven Ostrowski, the president of LotusWorks, said he wasn't aware of the court ruling and declined to comment. Asked if the project was moving forward, he replied, "We hope so."
Jennifer Kalez, communications director for the Oregon Department of Energy, said in an email that there are three other energy facilities currently under review for amendments. The projects, which don't appear to have generated controversy, include two wind farms near Arlington, as well as a transmission line between Eugene to Medford.
The state council will consider making the disputed rules permanent at its meeting in Hood River on Friday, Jan. 24.
A dozen conservation groups, including Friends of the Columbia Gorge, submitted a 22-page letter asking the council to not make the rules permanent, citing concerns that they would conflict with state law and reduce public input.
Baker said that the rules would allow staff to decide on project site expansions that should be made by the council. He said that his group believes that the rules would conflict with state law and they could draw a third court challenge.
"It all depends on what (the council) does next week," he said.
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