Let's cut to the chase: Of course the meetings should be open. As far as we can tell, there is no justification for holding these meetings in private.
Especially not now, after the state has spent millions of dollars to develop a system that still doesn't work.
In some ways, this legislative oversight committee seems like a microcosm of the entire Cover Oregon fiasco: According to the Salem Statesman Journal, which broke the story, considerable confusion exists about the role the committee was intended to play, who was in charge of the meetings and how the meetings should be run. As the story developed, Cover Oregon officials said the panel was a legislative committee. Legislators said they thought the panel was under Cover Oregon's jurisdiction.
What is clear is that the committee has met nearly two dozen times, meeting monthly since May 2012. The Statesman Journal reported that Cover Oregon staff set the agendas, scheduled the meeting times and ran the meetings. Lawmakers showed up for what they assumed were briefings.
The meetings didn't receive much press attention because — well, because no one from the press knew about them.
On the agenda for this week's meeting: A presentation from Cover Oregon officials on options for fixing the health insurance exchange website. Reporters got wind of the meeting, thought it might be interesting — what on Earth were they thinking, huh? — and showed up, only to be told that the meeting was closed.
Bitter recriminations followed. Eventually, Cover Oregon officials said they thought that it would be swell if the meetings were open — but that the decision should be made by legislators.
For their part, some legislators told the Statesman Journal that they always had assumed that the meetings were being run by Cover Oregon and that it was OK if the meetings were closed. The legislators added that, in general, the briefings hadn't been particularly interesting or useful, possibly because Cover Oregon might have had an interest in, shall we say, massaging the information.
So, to summarize: The legislative oversight committee didn't have much of a chance to serve its function, whatever exactly that might have been. And the fact that the meetings were held behind closed doors meant that neither the press nor the public had any opportunity to scrutinize the information presented.
Maybe that wouldn't have made much difference in heading off the Cover Oregon fiasco. But going forward, it's essential that state officials put a premium on transparency as we try to figure out how to fix this mess.
The (Bend) Bulletin, March 28: Cover Oregon shuts public out of oversight
We already knew Cover Oregon spent money it shouldn't. It created a health care marketplace that didn't work. And now we learn it held secret meetings when it said it wouldn't.
Salem's Statesman-Journal reported Thursday that Cover Oregon kept its oversight meetings with the Legislature behind closed doors. Cover Oregon and the Legislature provided no public notice of the meetings. It provided no agendas. It kept no minutes. The meetings were held monthly since May 2012 in secret.
When a reporter tried to attend, the reporter was escorted out.
Legislators who did attend were not able to do much oversight. They weren't given basic information about what was going on. For instance, they say they weren't told of the quality assurance reports, produced by a contractor hired by the state, that month after month warned Cover Oregon was in trouble.
Cover Oregon officials insisted the oversight committee meetings were not public meetings and so they didn't need to follow Oregon's public meetings law. Only a judge can ultimately decide if the meetings ran afoul of the law.
They certainly violated the spirit and intent of the law, which is that the public's business should be done in the open. Why exactly should oversight of one of the most important health care changes in Oregon history be kept secret?
One legislator, committee member Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, argued the meetings should remain secret. Public officials often are enamored with the idea that if the public is shut out, outcomes will be better because the discussions will be more frank. "The substance of public meetings can be different than the subject of private meetings," Greenlick said.
How many more fiascos like this does it take before that homily is dispelled by laughter?
What makes the secret meetings worse is the hypocrisy. Cover Oregon officials declared they would be open and transparent. Cover Oregon Chief Communications Officer Amy Fauver told The Bulletin's editorial board on July 24 that Cover Oregon was going to be open about what it does. She failed to add that would not include program oversight.
Blinded by hubris and smitten with a crusade to bring better health care, Cover Oregon managed to produce what is arguably the worst health care marketplace in the country. And it tried to hide what it was doing from the public.
The Daily Astorian, March 27: Deadly landslide highlights region-wide slate of issues
With at least 16 dead and the potential for many more casualties from a massive landslide in Oso in northwest Washington, all rural residents on the wet side of the Pacific Northwest will be casting wary eyes toward our own steep and unstable hillsides.
In a sense, landslides are the flip side of wildlife risks that worsen as population expands into previously unsettled areas. Fire danger is associated with placing residential areas within forests, without hydrants or adequate buffers between dwellings and trees. Landslide danger comes from homes in proximity to slopes that may never have been very stable, and are less so following heavy rains and surface disturbances like logging or road building.
Astoria is of course infamous for its many interspersed slippery slopes, with slides thus far impacting property values rather than taking lives. But there are numerous other serious examples of unstable terrain tearing across highways and other structures in the Lower Columbia region. The most notorious in recent years was the massive December 2007 disaster that covered U.S. Highway 30, resulting in evacuations and an expensive, months-long reconstruction.
Watching news reports about the Oso slide, we have been lucky. Covering a square mile with tangled debris and obstructing a river, this event obliterated a small concentration of country homes. This was a "town" in the much the same sense as many in our own area, where a lot of country roads lead to far-flung hamlets of anywhere from five to 25 houses. Also as in Oso, many of these neighborhoods cluster along valley bottoms to take advantage of water views and access, while industrial forestry remains a vital part of our economy on surrounding steep hillsides.
The Pacific Northwest will get nothing but more crowded, as the U.S. population increases and people relocate from hotter, drought states. The temptation will be to develop in more remote and less appropriate forested areas. Pragmatically, there may not be much that can be done to stop this.
But we should look at our own situations, taking note of factors like rivers eroding the footings of hillsides like the one that gave way in Oso. More intense rainfall events and a switch from snowpack to more rain are predicted to become the norm. It is time to more carefully take slope stability into account when considering logging permits or giving the go-ahead to other types of development.
As our region accommodates denser mixes of land uses, we must figure out how best to live side by side, taking risks into account and fairly allocating the costs. This will sometimes mean saying no to developments located below undependable hillsides, or no to certain land modifications above dwellings. But better this than what happened in Snohomish County.
Eugene Register-Guard, March 27: Caution on LNG exports
As momentum builds in Washington, D.C., to sell vast amounts of domestic natural gas overseas in response to the turmoil in Ukraine, federal officials should continue to move cautiously on removing restrictions on exports and approving the construction of natural gas export terminals.
On Monday, the U.S. Department of Energy conditionally authorized the controversial Jordan Cove Energy Project in Coos Bay to export liquefied natural gas to countries that do not have a free trade agreement with the United States. (Countries with free trade agreements could still buy gas after nominal review.) The project, which includes a liquefaction terminal, a 230-mile pipeline and a natural-gas-fired power plant, would cost $7.5 billion and be able to export 800 million cubic feet of gas each day.
With the addition of Jordan Cove, the Obama administration has approved seven projects that could export a combined total of 9.3 billion cubic feet of gas each day, and at least eight more applications are pending. Only one has started construction, Cheniere Energy's Sabine Pass facility on the Texas-Louisiana border. The rest, including Jordan Cove, must clear additional environmental and health permit hurdles.
Jordan Cove originally received a license as a gas-import terminal in 2009 from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. A collapse in domestic natural gas prices caused by the extraction of gas from shale deposits prompted developers to resubmit their application to become an export terminal serving mostly Asian markets. That application has yet to be approved, and the project's backers also have yet to receive other necessary federal and state permits before they can begin construction.
Federal and state officials reviewing those applications should not be rushed by political pressure to increase natural gas exports to Eastern Europe and Ukraine in light of the conflict with Russia over Crimea. In recent days, House Speaker John Boehner and others in Congress have urged the administration to expedite approval of gas export facilities such as Jordan Cove.
But there is ample reason for caution, and gas exports remain a controversial issue with powerful supporters on both sides of the debate.
Long before Russian President Vladimir Putin sent Russian troops into the Crimean Peninsula, U.S. energy companies were eager to take advantage of booming production from U.S. shale fields that have swollen American reserves and driven down domestic prices by two-thirds since 2008. Natural gas produced and sold in the United States is cheap, costing as little as a fourth of what gas sells for in Europe and Asia, and that makes it highly marketable.
But export critics warn that increased gas exports could result in rising utility prices for U.S. consumers who rely on gas for heating and cooking. Higher exports also could increase costs to chemical and fertilizer companies and other U.S. manufacturers who have benefited from the availability of cheap gas.
New evidence suggests that those concerns may be overstated. A recent Department of Energy study agrees that a major expansion of gas exports would increase prices but that they would remain below 2008 levels and increases would occur slowly over the course of several years.
A more pressing concern is environmental damage that could result from increased hydraulic fracturing, the technique used to extract gas from shale formations. Federal officials should not allow unrestricted exports without first tightening the ridiculously lax federal regulation of gas production.
In Oregon, environmental groups and property owners opposed to the Jordan Cove project also have asked the state to reject the LNG terminal not only because of risks of increased fracking, but also because of impacts on landowners whose property will be condemned to build the feeder pipeline, and potential destruction of salmon habitat in the Rogue River and Coos Bay.
Given the lumbering pace of the federal and state review process, no one can legitimately accuse authorities yet of recklessly accelerating the review process. Yet pressure is rising on the administration to cut regulatory corners to increase LNG exports.
Federal and state officials should resist that pressure and methodically, carefully, thoroughly consider the vitally important issues posed by the export of natural gas from the United States.
(Medford) Mail Tribune, March 27: LNG terminal plan has reversed course once; much could change in five years
Opponents of a proposed liquefied natural gas export terminal in Coos Bay and the pipeline across Southern Oregon that would carry gas there have reason for concern after the U.S. Energy Department gave conditional approval to the project this week. But the facility is still years away from exporting any gas, and global market conditions that make it attractive now could change by then.
That's a reasonable possibility because the project literally has reversed direction once since it was first proposed.
Originally, the Jordan Cove project was planned as an import facility, receiving liquefied gas shipments from Asia and other places where gas was cheaper, warming it back to a gaseous state and piping it into California, where it would be stored for use in the domestic energy market.
Jordan Cove received a license to import LNG just as new hydraulic fracturing technology known as "fracking" made possible the recovery of huge quantities of gas from shale formations in this country, driving down the price of gas here relative to the rest of the world. The Jordan Cove project was shelved, but the company behind it, Veresen Inc., then applied to build the facility as an export terminal instead.
Monday's Energy Department decision is only one step in the approval process. Other federal and state agencies must sign off, including the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, who was lukewarm toward the project as chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, now touts the facility as a needed provider of jobs. Backers say the project would create 2,000 high-wage construction jobs for four years, and 150 permanent jobs in Coos Bay, long an economic backwater.
Recent events in Ukraine, where Russia has annexed the Crimea region, have increased calls for the Obama administration to accelerate approvals of gas exports as a way to put pressure on Russia, a major supplier of gas to world markets. The Jordan Cove project wouldn't directly affect Russian gas deliveries to Europe because exports from Coos Bay would be headed for Asia, but they would have some effect on the overall world supply.
Still, gas exports would not begin until 2019 at the earliest. By then, any number of circumstances could change again, from the global price of gas to Russia's role in the world market.
U.S. gas production could change, too. The environmental consequences of fracking are causing increasing concern, and restrictions on the practice could push prices higher in the future, making exports less attractive.
Environmental concerns over the pipeline route through parts of Jackson County also will play a role in the approval process, as could challenges from property owners. And opponents question the wisdom of putting a liquefied natural gas facility in a known earthquake and tsunami zone — not idle concerns.
In the end, state and congressional leaders must ensure that any benefits to Oregon's economy are worth the risk to the environment inherent in building a gas pipeline and an LNG export plant.