Heading south on Highway 101 in Oregon, the skyline of Coos Bay-North Bend opens on the horizon. I'm traversing the Conde McCullough Memorial Bridge - formally the Coos Bay Bridge - which means I'm close to home. I grew up in Coos County; twenty-four miles south of Coos Bay in the small town of Bandon “By the Sea.” It's been 15 years since I departed the small-town lifestyle. Like many of my peers, finding work means moving north, to Multnomah County.
Looking west from the bridge brings a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean. In the foreground runs a narrow strip of land: the North Spit. It's here, along a notch of the Bay known as Jordan Cove, that the Pembina Pipeline Corporation proposes the latest in a series of fossil fuel schemes that have created divisions in the region for nearly fourteen years.
Coos County is a rural, working-class region through and through. Notoriety stems from lumber mills, commercial fishing and crabbing. Once a bustling shipping town, Coos Bay was known as the “lumber shipping capital of the world”. Today, Coos County’s top employers are in large retail, tourism, and the service industry. Currently there is only one remaining lumber company that employs over 250 people. Given this dramatic shift, it is no surprise that proponents of the Jordan Cove fracked gas project believe another extractive industry can be the solution to decades of economic decline.
Southwestern Oregon has struggled to maintain a delicate balance of preserving old-growth forests and living wage jobs. The 1970's brought some of the strongest environmental policies to date: the Endangered Species Act, National Forest Management Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. With the collection of research data, people were able to highlight the importance of Oregon’s forests and vocalize concerns of a rapidly damaged ecosystem.
In the 1970's and 80's, forest and labor activists sought to build bridges between loggers and other affected communities in southern Oregon and northern California. Despite these efforts, and thanks to the coordination of timber barons and the FBI to squelch solidarity, the story of "environmentalists versus workers" hardened. Lacking the political will and vision to give workers better opportunities, elected representatives and industry heads doubled down on natural resource extraction as one of the only paths to a living wage. And while federal regulations needed to protect the forests were implemented, this was not met with any comprehensive program to transition workers to new, sustainable jobs. Industry adjusted and began hemorrhaging jobs, paving the way for economic decline, generational poverty, and a damaged ecosystem.
The theme of the “environmentalists versus loggers” was persistent during my upbringing, having been raised by a father that had his own logging business, in addition to many family members whose livelihood was reliant upon the industry. For my father it would require traveling throughout the county, wherever the work was. Many blue-collar workers oftentimes felt as though they had to compromise ecological preservation for the need of a paycheck. The resource fights over the last several decades should serve as a cautionary tale for southern Oregon. Who wins when we prioritize short-term profits over long-term sustainability?
While the need for family-wage jobs is high, the Jordan Cove fracked gas Pipeline poses disastrous risks to our waterways, natural landscapes, and overall safety and well-being for the people that reside along the 229-mile pipeline. Approximately 17,000 people reside within the hazardous burn zone, all of whom would be at risk within a 2.2 mile radius if the facility’s tankers were to explode or leak. Once the Boardman Coal Plant closes in 2020, the Jordan Cove Export terminal would become the largest polluter in the entire state of Oregon, emitting 15 times the amount of Boardman Coal, over 37 (mmt) million metric tons and the equivalent of 7.9 million cars on the road. During construction, the pipeline would create 6,000 jobs, however according to the Pembina’s company website, only 200 permanent jobs will be available once construction is completed. For increasingly high risk levels, one must ask how the concerns outweigh the potential gains.
As a working-class ecosocialist and organizer with the Portland Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), I understand that an economic system based on the infinite flow of value from workers' labor to the wealthy few - capitalism - is incompatible with a finite planet. This is true in Coos County and across the globe. Oil and gas companies do not have the vested interest of the workers in mind at all. Their ultimate goal is clearing a path for profit, and eliminating regulations all at the expense of the poor and working-class. Isn’t there a better way? Doesn't southern Oregon deserve a chance to thrive without ramping up its contribution to runaway climate change?
Back on the Conde McCullough Memorial Bridge in Coos Bay, a placard states that it was completed in 1947, funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). As a public works construction agency of the New Deal of 1933, the WPA put approximately 8.5 million Americans to work during the Great Depression. DSA believes we are past due for a similar effort, this time to fight against the worst effects of climate change, under the banner of a Green New Deal. Such a program could surpass the promise of jobs from Jordan Cove and fill a void that Southern Oregon desperately needs filled in terms of work, economic mobility, and promise. At the federal level, a job guarantee could ensure that individuals would receive comprehensive paid training while learning a new trade and giving people access to jobs that they need, with the dignity that they deserve.
The Portland Chapter of DSA has joined a coalition of organizations that have denounced the fracked gas pipeline and terminal, strongly saying that we must stop Jordan Cove. We believe in full-measured approaches to tackling our stratified economy and know that we must rapidly address the crisis that climate change poses especially for the poor and working people. That’s why Portland DSA has also joined the call for an Oregon Green New Deal to center marginalized communities, the poor and working-class in our cities and rural communities. Jobs could be made available to revitalize existing infrastructure and weatherize homes to make utility bills more affordable and homes more livable. It would expand renewable energy grids and implement emergency preparedness measures across the state.
Last year, people in Portland voted overwhelmingly for the Portland Clean Energy Initiative. The initiative will create a fund that prioritizes clean energy projects, jobs and training for historically marginalized communities by holding large retailers accountable for their carbon footprint. An endorsement for the initiative came from Columbia Pacific Building Trades Council, an affiliate of the Oregon State Building Trades Council that also support the Jordan Cove proposal. I hope labor unions in Oregon such as the Building Trades look closely at options for an Oregon Green New Deal which could bring jobs to Coos County and across the state.
We must collaborate with frontline communities, the working poor, all while ensuring that the climate crisis is addressed. Unlike liberal ecology models, ecosocialists understand there is no contradiction in ensuring both needs are served. We can and will address the economic demands of working people and the imperative demands of addressing climate change.
I eagerly want to work with Coos County and Southern Oregon atlarge on this vision and believe that in order to do so, collectively we must hold the wealthiest accountable. Historically, the environmental movements of the past have struggled to bridge the divide between the interests of blue-collar workers and the imperative ecological preservation, which has needlessly fallen at the expense of workers. Collectively we can preserve the ecological livelihood of our state and still prioritize the needs of the working-class in Southern Oregon. For I believe we can accomplish this goal in collaboration and solidarity.
Serena Howell is a member of the Portland Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. She grew up in Bandon.