COOS COUNTY — More than $1 million dollars has been donated or spent to crush a controversial ballot measure that targets the proposed Jordan Cove liquid natural gas export terminal and Pacific Connector Gas Pipeline. The staggering amount has made the campaign the county’s most expensive in its history.
As of Sunday afternoon, the Save Coos Jobs Committee, the opposition group to Measure 6-162, which its petitioners call “The Coos County Right to a Sustainable Energy Future Ordinance” — had spent or received $1,042,294 for its operations, about 50 times the amount the Yes on Measure 6-162 Committee has been able to raise or spend.
The polarizing measure on Tuesday's ballot would prohibit the transportation of fossil fuels within the county as well as the development of any "non-sustainable" energy systems, particularly hydraulic and pneumatic fracturing.
The ban would not apply to infrastructure already in place such as on-site heating or affect fuel for vehicles.
A large chunk of Save Coos’ funds have come from one donor, Jordan Cove, the Veresen Inc. owned, Calgary, Alberta-based company behind the two natural gas projects.
The foreign energy company alone has donated nearly $600,000 in cash and in-kind donations.
“Why so much? It’s simple, this is very important to us,” Jordan Cove spokesperson Michael Hinrichs said. "We think it has consequences to the project absolutely but beyond that it will have negative consequences for Coos County.”
On May 1, Pembina Pipeline Corp. purchased Veresen in a deal valued at $9.7 billion, including debt, a move that many in the natural gas industry believe will solidify its projects’ chances.
Only two in-state organizations have contributed to the Save Coos Jobs campaign: a labor organization in Portland donated $5,000 and the Coos-Curry County Farm Bureau chipped in another $1,000, both were cash contributions.
By comparison, the Yes on Measure 6-162 Committee has spent or received $18,745.
The majority of its funds have come in the form of small cash contributions from in-state and in-county donors as well as from the ballot authors’ own bank accounts.
To date, the Yes Campaign has received $13,460 in cash and in-kind donations and spent just over $5,000.
The committee has focused its expenditures locally: taking out around $1,500 in ads from The World Newspaper and $510 with South Coast Shopper, while spending just shy of $400 on Amazon and $351 at Staples.
Conversely, Save Coos Jobs has committed $440,139 of its massive war chest to several advertising, canvassing and polling firms; all out of Portland.
The advertising expenditures includes $136,000 with Media Analysis, Inc., $113,000 to Prospect PDX and more than $20,000 with Morel Ink.
The committee also paid nearly $150,000 to Direct Action Partners Inc., a Portland-based, national marketing firm that specializes in canvassing and signature gathering.
It spent another $23,450 for surveying and polling from Patinkin Research Strategies.
The Portland polling company boasts on its website that it is in one of the most accurate in the country and has a list of ballot measures it claims to have helped pass or defeat.
The disparity in spending and available funds is apparent across the county.
Save Coos Jobs yard signs vastly outnumber Yes on 6-162 signs: on Newmark Avenue in Coos Bay, "No" signs outnumber "Yes" signs by about ten to one.
A quick drive down Oregon Route 42 from Coos Bay to Coquille will yield a trip dotted with only a few blue “Yes” signs, surrounded by clusters of red “No” signs.
Digital and print advertising has been no different: Save Coos Jobs' television and radio commercials have been running almost nonstop for the past week, with one involving a farmer saying the measure would violate personal property rights.
Various flyers assailing the proposed ordinance have been delivered by mail across the area as well.
The No Campaign has also been widely visible online leading up to election day, with ads popping up virtually anytime a resident accesses the internet.
The countywide ad blitz has spared no one, including the measure’s co-author, local activist Mary Geddry, who said she had one appear while she was playing a game on her smartphone.
On Saturday, the ballot’s most vocal backer admitted the massive amount of eleventh-hour ads were impressive.
The heavy saturation of negative ads drove Geddry to release a final online ad of her own which read “Isn’t this just wrong? Fossil-fuel funded PAC threatens lawsuits unless Coos County votes in the company’s interests.”
Geddry said she was skeptical of her ads' efficacy.
“It’s our latest salvo,” she explained. “I’m not sure if we can breach the hull of their campaign dreadnought, but we sure can try.”
Mike Krumper, a retired Coos Health and Wellness employee, has donated more than $4,000 to the Yes Campaign.
He said despite the disparities in committee spending, he felt the cause for the Yes Campaign was far from hopeless.
“I would prefer not to be helpless,” he said. “I would prefer to be angry instead, especially with the county commissioners.”
While Coos County’s three commissioners have yet to take an official, unified stance on the measure, all three have spoken out against it separately.
“It’s just a ridiculous piece of legislation,” Commissioner John Sweet said. “I don’t think we have the right to tell people what they can and cannot carry into this county on state highways.”
Commissioner Bob Main has been highly critical of the measure since it was introduced, arguing the ordinance seeks to change both Oregon's and the United States' constitutions and prohibit Coos County from receiving even wind energy from neighboring counties.
Commissioner Melissa Cribbins, a former attorney, asserted that the measure is unconstitutional.
“I don’t think the Constitution gets any stronger because Coos County says it is,” she said, noting the Second Amendment Preservation Measure passed in 2015, which gave the sheriff the ability to choose which state and federal laws were unconstitutional, had little, if any teeth.
According to Cribbins, the two measures are similar in the sense that they both create legal gray areas and expose local law enforcement to future liability.
When asked if she or the other commissioners felt conflicted going against the wishes of some of their constituents, Cribbins said there were other avenues to oppose LNG and fossil-fuel projects.
“I know people see this as a way to stop Jordan Cove,” she said. “And I know there’s a lot of my constituents who don’t like Jordan Cove, who are concerned about the effects of LNG, but if they don’t like LNG they need to fight it through the FERC — Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — process, that’s the right way to do it because this measure puts the county in a position where we have to decide how we are going to deal with a law that is going to get challenged immediately in the courts and runs the chance of costing the county a lot in legal fees.”
The commissioners' stances on the proposed ordinance have bolstered a cohort of business and government officials that have drawn battle lines opposing it in recent months.
The opposition group includes the Port of Coos Bay and the Bay Area Chamber of Commerce.
Coos Bay’s mayor Joe Benetti is a sitting member on the Save Coos Jobs Committee, while Cribbins was featured on its initial press release condemning the measure.
On Friday, both said they did not feel conflicted about siding against their constituents in favor of a group that is largely backed by out-of-state money.
“It’s a bad bill,” Benetti said. “It’s unlawful and it would stifle commerce and business in my opinion.”
He said both groups had out-of-area backing: Save Coos Jobs with Jordan Cove, while Yes on 6-162 has the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit that provides legal assistance to citizens seeking to pass legislation that asserts “the right to local self-government and the rights of nature.”
While the East Coast, environmental nonprofit provides legal advice and helped craft the language in the ordinance, the group has made no monetary donations.
“They’re both outside interests but the difference is (our) committee was formed by locals, this was the intent and we were fortunate enough to get the money from Jordan Cove, which allowed us to go out and campaign against this [measure] immediately,” Benetti said. “I think that’s the difference here, this outside interest has put out initiatives throughout the country and in different states and came here and had an advocate get with them on it.”
Kai Huschke, Northwestern organizer for CELDF, disputed this account.
He said Geddry had approached the nonprofit around three years ago for help with the measure.
According to Huschke, critics of CELDF that accuse it of advancing its own out-of-state agenda are misguided in their arguments.
“Realistically, we are a tiny nonprofit of about a dozen employees and volunteers that doesn’t exist without people in places like Coos County doing what they do,” he said. “It’s not really our agenda, it’s the community’s agenda that we just happen to provide support for.”
Geddry also disputed Benetti’s claim.
“To pretend that (Save Coos Jobs) is a local campaign is laughable,” she said. “There is no local volunteer base, everything is paid for and run out of Portland.”
Regardless, to ignore CELDF’s influence would be misleading.
On its website the nonprofit claims nearly 200 communities have adopted “CELDF-drafted Community Bills of Rights laws that transition them from merely regulating corporate harms to stopping those harms by asserting local, democratic control directly over corporations.”
The nonprofit also assisted with the language on a 2018 statewide ballot measure — also co-authored by Geddry — which seeks to amend Oregon’s State Constitution.
Like the proposed Coos County ordinance, the measure would effectively prohibit corporations from using the courts to overturn local laws. Moreover, the state measure would provide a pathway for communities to pass — in theory — laws that cannot be overturned by state or federal law.
Geddry said that measure's existence makes the county ordinance's questionable future easier to stomach.
“This has really been a successful campaign for us — regardless of what happens on Tuesday night — because Jordan Cove has verified everything we have been trying to express to the traditional environmental activist-type groups,” she added. “Those groups need different tools in the armory to really fight against these projects.”