Methanol plant site

The Department of Ecology has rejected Northwest Innovation Works' climate change study, delaying the project by as much as a year.

In another major delay for the proposed $2 billion Kalama methanol refinery, state officials Friday announced that further review of the project’s impact on global climate change will be necessary before the state can make a decision on a key permit.

In a press release, the state Department of Ecology said a third-party supplemental review of the plant’s greenhouse gas emissions that Cowlitz County and the Port of Kalama submitted early this month “is insufficient and that additional environmental review is required.”

Ecology said it would take over the analysis itself. The process could take up to a year, adding to five years the project has been undergoing environmental review.

The agency did not immediately explain specifically how or why the study was inadequate, except to say it “did not fully analyze the project’s emissions, as directed by the Washington Shorelines Hearings Board and upheld by Cowlitz County Superior Court.”

“Without sufficient analysis, we cannot fully assess the potential environmental impacts associated with the proposed methanol facility. And we cannot make a decision on the permit,” according to Ecology’s statement.

Ecology said it would determine the scope of a new environmental review itself, and “it will include a more robust lifecycle analysis of the project’s greenhouse gas emissions, and a more detailed assessment of the environmental impacts caused by those emissions.

“We will conduct our analysis as quickly as possible. Similar reviews have taken approximately a year to complete. Once we have a draft complete, we will make it available for public review and comment,” the Ecology statement concludes.

Dan Serres, Columbia Riverkeeper conservation director, said the decision is “an important step in holding the company accountable to its (the plant’s) potential impact.”

“We are confident that this project cannot withstand a real, thorough review,” he said in a press release. “We know this proposal would be a massive generator of climate-changing pollution.”

Riverkeeper contends the port/county greenhouse analysis relies on a “dubious claim that (the plant) is going to replace dirtier methanol made from coal,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of the conservation group told The Associated Press. “There’s just no justification for that. The Department of Ecology is doing its job.”

Northwest Innovation Works wants to build the methanol refinery on leased land at the Port of Kalama. It would convert natural gas into methanol that the company says would be shipped for Asia for use in plastics production.

The plant would create about 200 permanent jobs and about 1,000 construction jobs, according to NWIW. It would be one of the world’s largest methanol refineries.

The company has pledged to offset all its in-state greenhouse emissions, and the climate change analysis submitted earlier this month concluded that the Kalama project would reduce global emissions by at least 10 million metric tons per year, or the equivalent of about 2 million cars.

Company officials reacted with disappointment, noting that the environmental review period has gone on five years.

“Throughout that robust process we have been open and transparent, sought input and feedback, and evolved and adapted our project to improve it whenever we can,” Vee Godley, chief development officer for NWIW, said in a prepared statement. “Despite the fact that the State of Washington lacks a policy to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, NW Innovation Works is helping guide our state to a lower carbon future where emissions are properly accounted for and mitigated.”

Every year this project is delayed, Godley said, results in emissions of another 10 to 12 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions that would otherwise be averted.

The company says that producing methanol from natural gas costs about half what it costs to make from coal, so it would have a competitive advantage — as well as an environmental one — over Chinese methanol production.

“If this doesn’t get built, the result will not be less material produced in the world,” Kent Caputo, general counsel of Northwest Innovation Works, said earlier this week. “It will be that those materials will be produced in countries that do not adhere to the environmental and regulatory standards that Washington state has.”

Caputo said Friday the Kalama project “will add nothing to the state’s greenhouse gas footprint due to our groundbreaking commitment to a 100% GHG-neutral mitigation plan, even for emissions not directly associated with our project. If it becomes necessary to prove it again, we will. We’re prepared for the long haul.”

Cowlitz County planning director Elaine Placido, whose agency helped oversee the greenhouse study, declined comment Friday.

The project has had widespread support from local officials and local construction trades unions. And in a Port of Kalama commissioner general election race that was a de facto referendum on the project, incumbent commissioner Alan Basso easily beat challenger Gary Wallace, an outspoken critic of the plant.

Ecology’s decision is a “setback to common sense,” said Mike Bridges, president of Longview/Kelso Building and Construction Trades Council.

“Their decision is a blow to science and a blow to the working women and men of Cowlitz County who have continually had their ambitions for economic opportunity and job growth snuffed out by decisions in Olympia,” Bridges said in an email Friday. “We want a partner in the Department of Ecology, but instead, it feels like they are working against us.”

Gov. Jay Inslee initially supported the plant when it was first proposed early in 2014. He changed his mind while running for president on a platform almost exclusively focused on curbing global climate change.

Ecology’s decision Friday came about a week after conservation and public health groups, including Columbia Riverkeeper, the Sierra Club and Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, sued in U.S. District Court in Tacoma to invalidate key federal permits for the project.

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Contact City Editor Andre Stepankowsky at 360-577-2520.


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