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Methanol plant site

Northwest Innovation Works' $2 billion methanol plant would be built at the north end of the Port of Kalama. 

After nearly five years of environmental review, a major question continues to stall the proposed $2 billion Kalama methanol plant.

Will the plant displace dirtier coal-to-methanol facilities in China, as Northwest Innovation Works contends, or will it just be a new, massive source of planetary greenhouse gases?

The state Department of Ecology announced last week it will conduct its own review of this question after finding the late summer study by Cowlitz County and the Port of Kalama insufficient.

Jeff Zenk, Ecology spokesman, said Monday the new study will target the life cycle of the project’s greenhouse gas emissions and their impact on the environment.

Ecology has asked the county multiple times for the information, he said, most recently in an Oct. 9 letter. In its response, Cowlitz County officials said their greenhouse gas study addresses the department’s concerns.

Ecology’s study will include the emissions of extracting the natural gas and transporting it to Kalama, where it would be used to make methanol for plastics production in Asia. The county/port study attempted to do this, too, but Ecology considered the analysis inadequate, Zenk said.

Ecology is working out the details of the review and doesn’t have an estimate of how long it will take, but Zenk said similar studies took about a year.

“We’re committed to doing this thing as fast as possible in fairness to the applicants,” he said.

The department is also working out whether it will hire a consultant for the review, how much it will cost and who will pay for it, Zenk said. Similar studies cost $400,000 to $600,000, he said. (The county and port say NWIW paid “six figures” for the study they submitted to Ecology.)

Once a draft of the review is complete, it will be available for a 45-day public comment period, Zenk said.

NWIW wants to build the methanol plant on leased land at the Port of Kalama.

The county is the review agency for the methanol project and has twice approved a shorelines permit for the project. Ecology now has to either affirm that decision, reject it or approve it with conditions, but officials said they can’t make a decision without sufficient analysis.

Port of Kalama spokesman Liz Newman said Monday the port is “troubled” by Ecology’s decision, which further delays the project.

“The Port stands by the rigor and thoroughness of the current SEIS (supplemental environmental impacts statement), which exceeds all previous standards for environmental study and offers an unprecedented level of mitigation,” she said in an email.

Northwest Innovations 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 10 million metric tons per year, or the equivalent of about 2 million cars, by offsetting coal-based methanol production.

Sen. Dean Takko, D-Longview, Wednesday blasted Ecology over its decision in a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee. He called the decision a “cowardly swipe at our ambition to bring prosperity back to Southwest Washington.”

The governor’s office Monday confirmed it received the letter and that Inslee will reply to Takko.

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.

Environmental groups applauded Ecology’s decision as a way to hold Northwest Innovation Works “accountable to the plant’s potential impact.” Columbia Riverkeeper said the port/county analysis relies on “dubious claim that (the plant) is going to replace dirtier methanol made from coal.”

The plan would create an estimated 1,000 construction jobs and 200 permanent jobs and generate millions of dollars in local taxes, according to the proponents.

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