Several Oregon winemakers have declared war on two proposed natural gas pipelines through the Willamette Valley that would uproot vineyards, including one being planted by famed Pinot Noir producer Ken Wright.
Palomar Gas Transmission and Oregon LNG have proposed parallel pipelines to transport natural gas from terminals on the lower Columbia River to a station southeast of Portland. A coalition of winemakers, property owners, environmental groups, Native American tribes, farmers and foresters are challenging the pipeline and terminal projects.
Palomar confirmed that its route would go through at least two vineyards, including a hillside property leased by Wright located in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA in Yamhill County. Oregon LNG confirmed that its route also would cut through at least two vineyards, including Montinore Estates' 230-acre biodynamic vineyard in Washington County, owned by veteran winemaker Rudy Marchesi.
Wright said his property, which has been certified organic, is a "fabulous site" for Pinot Noir. "We think it's a premier growing location and that it would be its own vineyard-designated site." He said he had spent the last year preparing the site, will plant vines next spring and begin producing grapes in 2011. By that time, he estimates that he'll have invested $250,000. For every acre of Pinot Noir vines that are torn out for the pipeline, which would go right through the middle of the vineyard, he claims he'll lose $18,000 a year in profits.
"I've already made most of my investment, and there's absolutely no guarantee I can find a property as good," he said.
The 36-inch diameter gas pipelines would have a significant impact on the properties they cut through. Palomar requires a 50-foot permanent right of way for the line itself, and an additional 70 feet on a temporary basis for construction. Half the width of the permanent right of way could not be replanted with any deep-rooted plants, including grapevines. Oregon LNG's requirements are similar, except it's asking for 50 feet for a temporary construction easement.
"We work really hard to bypass and mitigate any damages and return the land as close as possible to the original state," said Leiann Stephenson, administrative manager for Oregon LNG. But the company hasn't been able to work with either of the two vineyard owners who would be affected because they haven't granted access to the land, she added.
Rudi Marchesi, who has operated Montinore Estate since 1982, said he initially was open to the pipeline because he recognizes the nation's need for more energy. But he subsequently denied Oregon LNG access to his land because he didn't understand why the company wasn't routing the line along existing roads and right of ways.
The pipeline would cut through a block of 28-year-old Pinot Noir vines—which often supply fruit for his reserve bottling—as well as a block of newly planted Pinot Noir vines. He estimates that the pipeline would require ripping out about 5 acres, costing him about $270,000 a year in wine sales.
In addition, he frets that the line operator would use a strong herbicide like 2-4-D to keep the pipeline right-of-way clear. He's had problems in the past with utilities using herbicides that drifted and damaged his vines.
The pipeline companies say they compensate landowners for the fair-market value of the land, and that they take into consideration future lost profits. "Our intent is to keep the farmers whole so they'd have no economic impact," said Michael Burke, assistant project manager for Palomar, a joint venture between Northwest Natural and TransCanada. "I don't know how we'd value wine crops. It's a valuable crop."
Still, Marchesi, whose winery produces 40,000 cases a year, said it would take five years after replanting to get a full crop, then another four to five years before the vines reach maturity. So he's working closely with a citizen activist group and hosting meetings at his Forest Grove winery to block the pipelines.
"I'm 58. I can't wait around 10 years," Marchesi said. "I've worked my whole life for this. I need to be making wine and selling it, not planting new vineyards."
The pipeline companies argue that the lines are needed to better supply Oregon, Washington and California, and would allow the importation of liquefied natural gas from Asia. (Some critics allege that the pipelines would allow gas companies to export U.S. natural gas to other countries, where the price is currently much higher.)
The developers say they're doing their best to mitigate the impact. "We would encourage landowners and farmers to work with our land agents to come up with solutions that work best for everyone," Burke said. His company's line, he added, would impact less than 5 acres of vineyard land, and most of that would be temporary.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) will consider the applications to build the two pipelines. The projects still have to win a number of other federal and state regulatory approvals as well before they can proceed. Once the projects are approved, landowners can either reach a compensation deal with the pipeline companies or take their case to a court of compensation claims.
Palomar hopes to start construction late next year and begin operating in 2011. Oregon LNG hopes to start construction in 2010. Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski has asked FERC to wait until other federal and state agencies have reviewed the projects for environmental and other impacts. FERC has until later this month to respond.