A conservation group fighting the proposed Kalama methanol plant now wants the federal government to investigate Northwest Innovation Works for potentially misleading investors.
But it was unclear Wednesday whether the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission will follow up on the claims.
Columbia Riverkeeper, a Hood River-based nonprofit conservation group, sent a letter Tuesday to the SEC alleging that Northwest Innovation “touted Chinese demand for methanol as a fuel,” while seeking investments for its $2 billion methanol plant at the Port of Kalama. But the company never explained to investors that it doesn’t intend to participate in the fuels market.
From the time it first proposed the plant in 2014, the company has said the methanol will be used to make plastics in Asia, not burned for fuel.
“We perceive that there is a disconnect between what Northwest Innovation Works is telling its investors and what it’s telling regulators and the public, and we’ve tried to raise that issue with everyone from Cowlitz County to Ecology, and now to federal regulators,” said Miles Johnson, senior attorney with Riverkeeper. “While we don’t have control over what the SEC does, we do have control over the kinds of questions we get to ask, and we think this is an important one.”
Riverkeeper is arguing both sides of the issue: First, it challenged the company’s statements about making the methanol only for plastics; now it’s accusing Northwest Innovation of misleading investors by implying it will sell the methanol for fuel.
Representatives with the SEC declined Wednesday to comment on the letter or the general investigation process.
Northwest Innovation Chief Commercial Officer Vee Godley said Riverkeeper is “trying to generate something out of nothing,” and the claims in the letter are “continued misinformation and spreading rumors.”
“The bottom line is ... we are making this product for materials. We’ve said that from day one,” Godley said. “We have even entered into an agreement … with the port that this methanol will only be used for materials.”
The company also stood by those claims in 2019, when Riverkeeper first accused it of misleading the public, state regulators or potential investors. That year company officials said any investor who did “their due diligence” would see the project is dedicated to making materials for plastics manufacturing.
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“(Riverkeeper) seems to be desperate. They can’t beat us on science, so I guess they are desperate to find other avenues to try to sway public opinion,” Godley said of the letter.
Riverkeeper’s claims are based on a 26-slide PowerPoint presentation for potential investors from March 2018. That same presentation served the basis for the nonprofit’s accusations in April 2019. The presentation outlines “methanol applications and market opportunities.”
“The Investment Overview asserts and implies that NWIW’s core business model is producing methanol for the Chinese fuel market — but never explains that NWIW does not intend to participate in that market,” Riverkeeper writes in its letter.
The company “appears to have misled potential investors about the market and level of demand for NWIW’s product and, by extension, the value of investing in NWIW,” the letter continues.
Northwest Innovation is proposing to build the nation’s largest gas-to-methanol manufacturing and export facility. The plan would use natural gas as feedstock to create methanol and then export that methanol to China, according to the company.
Company officials say the plant would create 1,000 construction jobs, nearly 200 permanent jobs and generate millions in tax revenue.
Opponents of the project have voiced concerns about the methanol being used as fuel instead, which would release more greenhouse gas emissions than accounted for in environmental studies.
The company has pledged to offset all its in-state greenhouse emissions, and the county/port climate change analysis concluded that the project would reduce global emissions by at least 11 million tons per year, or the equivalent of about 2 million cars, by offsetting coal-based methanol production.
“At the end of the day the environmental solution we are bringing to this community, the jobs, the revenue, the opportunity (will) help improve this county. It’s a shame people are trying to stop that,” Godley said Wednesday.
Even if the SEC investigates, Johnson said he doesn’t expect it to directly affect the permitting process. (The project has been caught up in permitting for almost six years, and in December the state Department of Ecology ordered a second supplemental environmental impact statement about the plant’s potential impacts on global climate change; the study could take up to a year.)
But an investigation could inform Ecology’s future permitting decisions, Johnson said. And it might force the company to disclose its business plans to investors, which “could chill Northwest Innovation Works’ ability to attract investment to the project,” Johnson said.
“Columbia Riverkeeper believes that everyone — the public, regulators, and potential investors — deserves to know the facts about NWIW.”