In a shocking reversal, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee Wednesday said he now opposes two natural gas projects in the state, including the planned $2 billion gas-to-methanol refinery at the Port of Kalama.
After signing a bill banning hydraulic fracking for oil and natural gas, Inslee said he could not “in good conscience support continued construction of a liquefied natural gas plant in Tacoma or a methanol production facility in Kalama.”
“In the early days of both projects, I said they could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions as we transition to cleaner energy sources, but I am no longer convinced that locking in these multidecadal infrastructure projects are sufficient to accomplishing what’s necessary” to combat global climate change, he said in a prepared statement.
“The impacts of climate change are already coming to bear, and scientists are saying that unless we reduce (carbon) emissions by half over the next decade, we will reach an irreversible tipping point.”
Inslee had previously supported the plant that Northwest Innovation Works (NWIW) hopes to build at the Port of Kalama to convert natural gas into methanol for shipment to Asia, where the company says it would be used in production of plastics.
The plant, according to the company, would create about 1,000 construction jobs and 200 permanent jobs and generate millions of dollars in local taxes. NWIW also has committed to hiring Longview contractor JH Kelly to build major parts of the plant and pledged to create a jobs training program.
According to environmental studies, the Kalama plant would not release any water pollution and would have minor impacts on air quality. NWIW has pledged to compensate for all 1.1 million tons of annual greenhouse gas emissions in Washington, and a recent “cradle to grave” study showed it would have a net decrease on greenhouse gas emissions globally by displacing coal-fed methanol plants in Asia.
Simon Zhang, CEO of NWIW, said in a statement Wednesday that Inslee and state regulators have “encouraged” the company to take these steps to cut down on emissions.
“It has resulted in what will be production of the cleanest methanol on the planet – replacing the dirtiest,” he said. “We know that Gov. Inslee’s decision today isn’t a message to stop innovating.”
However, it was disclosed recently that company officials have discussed use of methanol as a fuel in China, causing opponents to accuse the company of a cover up and calling for further study of the plant’s impact on climate change. NWIW maintains it is committed to using the methanol for plastics.
“We are dedicated to using our product for materials production, not for fuel,” Zhang said in the statement. “This is a critical distinction and one we are committed to demonstrating.”
Inslee is running for U.S. President on a platform to address climate change. Ted Sprague, Cowlitz Economic Development Council president, said he is worried that the governor’s statement is tied to his “presidential ambition more than what the science says and what is right for this state.”
“He (Inslee) wants to show the rest of the U.S. that he’s the greenest of the green (candidates),” Sprague said. “I understand that motivation when you are running for president and you want to establish and differentiate yourself.… For his purposes, that’s fine. But for the future of Washington state and jobs, it’s going to hurt us.”
However, Inslee said his stance on the projects does not change the state’s regulatory process and its objective review of projects. But he stressed that science shows there is a “dwindling” window for action to slow climate change.
“The age of consequences is upon us,” Inslee said. “We have to act based on clear science. Washington is embracing a clean energy future and the clean, healthy, sustainable jobs and benefits that come with it. We should be confident in our ability to build our clean energy economy, while sustaining a record economic growth and record numbers of good-paying construction and building jobs.”
Kent Caputo, NWIW general counsel, said the company remains confident the project will make it through the review process. The company is waiting for the release of the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement in the next few months, which will be used to review two shoreline permits.
“Our project aligns with Washington state’s commitment to carbon reduction,” Caputo said. “We remain confident that the regulatory process will conclude with an approval for this innovative way to make durable consumer products, like fleece vests and kayaks.”
Brett VandenHeuvel, Columbia Riverkeeper executive director, said the governor’s opposition to the project pushes it “further down a path where it’s unlikely to be built.” The organization has opposed the project since it was proposed in January 2014.
However, Sprague said he doesn’t expect Inslee’s reversal to affect the regulatory process for these projects.
“Whether the governor supports it or not, you have to go through a permit process, based on science and facts. That’s what we are dealing with,” Sprague said.
The “bigger fear” is how Inslee’s apparent opposition to natural gas will affect current and future businesses, Sprague said. For example, it could deter some businesses from opening shop in Washington.
“The choice of where a company chooses to locate is based on a lot of different factors, but the underlying factor that takes precedent is the cost of infrastructure and ongoing operation,” said Sprague, noting that natural gas is cheaper than solar and wind power. “We are setting our state up as one of the more expensive in terms of power costs. ... It’s just going to make us unattractive to job creators.”