A key permit decision for the proposed Kalama methanol project is on hold after the state Department of Ecology announced Wednesday it is pausing its review to ask for more information.
Ecology is requesting information from Cowlitz County, Northwest Innovation Works (NWIW) and the Port of Kalama regarding the project’s greenhouse gas emissions before it will make a decision on whether to issue a shoreline conditional use permit.
Kent Caputo, NWIW general counsel, said in an email that the company anticipated potential follow-up questions from Ecology.
“This is an unclear and evolving regulatory environment,” he said. “While we are proud to be on the leading edge of driving very beneficial outcomes, both globally and here in Washington, this type of process is what crafting meaningful change looks like.”
NWIW hopes to build the $2 billion project at the Port of Kalama to convert natural gas into methanol for shipment to Asia. Backers say the project would create about 1,000 construction jobs and 200 permanent jobs and generate millions of dollars in local taxes.
Ted Sprague, Cowlitz Economic Development Council president, said Ecology’s announcement is “another disappointment.”
“It doesn’t mean anybody is going to stop, but it just seems like the goal posts got moved once more,” he said. “The more we ask these companies to jump through hoops, the less likely they’ll be to look at our region as an area to open their business.”
The permit is the last significant clearance the project needs, but environmental groups say they will challenge its approval.
About a year ago, Cowlitz Superior Court Judge Stephen Warning overruled the state Shoreline Hearings Board’s September 2017 decision to invalidate two shoreline permits county regulators had previously granted. The permits have been on hold until completion of a “cradle to grave” analysis of the plant’s potential to affect climate change.
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NWIW paid Life Cycle Associates to complete the analysis. The final draft of the study was released Aug. 30. The plant would be the 12th largest emitter in the state. However, the study found the plant would cause a net decrease of global carbon emissions by displacing coal-based methanol production in Asia.
The Cowlitz County Department of Building and Planning determined in September that the project should get the shoreline permits as previously granted. Ecology then had 30 days to approve or deny the permits or ask for more information.
“Our review of the county’s permit decision found significant information missing from the project’s Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement and inadequate analysis of the project’s potential effects on Washington’s environment,” Ecology’s letter to the county said.
Ecology is asking for specific details on NWIW’s proposed plan to offset the project’s in-state greenhouse gas emissions and a “thorough, comprehensive” analysis of the project’s global and in-state greenhouse gas emissions.
The final environmental study included an outline of NWIW’s voluntary mitigation plan. Ecology is asking NWIW to describe the plan in more detail, including what emissions it will cover, how it will measure them and when it will implement the mitigation programs.
Ecology also asked the company to further explain the environmental study’s conclusion that the plant would displace coal-based methanol facilities.
The department additionally requested an analysis of the affects of using methanol as a fuel, something opponents to the project have voiced concerns about. NWIW maintains the methanol will only be used for plastic manufacturing.
Dan Serres, conservation director for Columbia Riverkeeper, said he appreciates that Ecology is “working to hold this company accountable after it spent years trying to deceive regulators and the public about the project’s impact” on the environment.
The county, port and NWIW have until Nov. 7 to provide the information to the county. Once the information is received, Ecology has another 30 days to decide if the project needs additional environmental review or issue a final permit decision.