Local Opposition Affects Oregon Biofuel Plant

- by Al Maiorino, March 3, 2015, Environmental Leader

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"295","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"319","style":"width: 333px; height: 221px; margin: 3px 10px; float: left;","width":"480"}}]]In 2014, the United States Departments of the Navy, Energy and Agriculture awarded a $70 million grant to Red Rock Biofuels for the design, construction, commissioning and performance testing of a new biofuel refinery.  The biorefinery is planned for Lakeview, Oregon, close to the Fremont Nation Forest and the intersecting state lines of Oregon, Nevada, and California. This new renewable project aims to expand military fuel sources, improve reliability of the nation’s fuel supply and prevent supply disruption to reinforce the nation’s energy security.  Despite these benefits that bring additional employment and revenue benefits for the local community of Lakeview, NIMBY, or “not in my backyard,” opponents to biofuel refineries across the United States run fierce opposition campaigns that threaten project completion.  These campaigns can often result in project delays or even cancellation all together, and despite a properly zoned site.

Two Lake County Commissioners, Brad Winters and Ken Kestner, support the biofuel project and believe that when completed, the project will improve Lakeview’s air quality by creating healthier forests and preventing forest fires. Additionally, Oregon Business wrote an economic report stating that the biofuel plant would create up to “25 direct and 79 to 109 indirect and induced jobs,” resulting in an increase in labor income. However, Commissioner Winters acknowledged the myths promoted by the opposition that take hold by noting that those opposed to the creation of the biorefinery are not basing their concerns and objections on factual information.  Winters emphasized the importance of community members’ attendance at review workshops and hearings in order to become more informed as state and federal agencies evaluate the proposal as a prerequisite for completion.

Despite a successful rezone of the proposed site by the Lake County Planning Board, opponents remain focused on keeping the proposal out of their community. They fear that transporting these biofuels through the Lake County railroad from Lakeview to Alturas could possibly result in derailments with damaging effects on the community. The opposition is highly organized, holding meetings to strategize and planning petition drives to re-open the process for public comment before the County Commissioners. As is the case with some projects, the opposition group is also instigating a recall drive against Lake County Commissioners and Lakeview Town Council members, showing that all land use truly is political in nature.

Meanwhile, supporters are hoping that this project will receive the necessary approvals according to current plans so construction can begin in summer or fall of 2015 for operations to commence by 2016.  Just as the opponents have utilized grassroots tactics to add to their numbers, so too much supporters. To save time and money, companies must engage communities and stakeholders throughout the entire permitting process to ensure that community members are informed and engaged every step. By identifying and mobilizing members of what is often the silent majority, public support can be built throughout Lake County for a quick and successful project approval.

Project Announcement

From the moment a project is announced, community outreach should be planned to introduce strategic messaging and educate the community on the details of the biofuel proposal. Targeted direct mail affords proposals the opportunity to highlight the project’s benefits with respect to jobs, revenue and clean energy generation.  When followed closely by telephone identification, residents will express their level of support for the project in a way that allows biofuel companies to follow up with supporters after this survey to build a rapport. The key point is never wait until opposition arises to initiate a campaign to build public support.

Develop an Updated Database

As supporters, undecideds and opponents are identified through digital and traditional vehicles of outreach, it is critical to code them into an organized resident database. By coding for political affiliation, district, income, political donations and any other demographics, this database allows for outreach to be structured like a political-style campaign. Quite often pointing out holes in the opposition group’s evidence only makes them advocate harder for their own cause, but undecided residents are far more likely to give thoughtful consideration to new data. Therefore, with an organized database, these undecided residents can be targeted with uniquely structured mailings and communications to build support in a more cost-effective manner.

Digital Advocacy

Supporters are probably already advocating for your cause on social media even if they are not doing so as a unified group. Capitalizing on this positive activity is essential. Hold supporter meetings regularly to unite supporters and urge the creation of a supporter-led Facebook group or Twitter account to keep all supporters informed of upcoming hearings and project developments. Community members are more likely to respond to a call to action that is supported by their peers than one coming directly from a business. Advocacy on social media quantifies support in the community, but even more importantly with access to quality comments, public officials and news outlets can gain insights to qualitative community sentiment as the reasons for support are shared among advocates.

Hearing Attendance

Opponents are great at turning out in large numbers for hearings. Reactive campaigns often are at a disadvantage from a prior hearing at which a few hundred opponents showed up with buttons and signs against a proposal. However, by building public support at the outset, biofuel companies will have the peace of mind knowing supporters will be informed and willing to speak on the project’s behalf at public hearings. Letter writing to newspapers and public officials will prime the audience of both the community at large and public officials as hearings approach. These steps are necessary for any renewable energy project’s speedy approval in order to demonstrate support before public officials in a tangible way.