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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. 

In another milestone for Northwest Innovation Works, state officials Thursday approved two major permits needed to build the $1.8 billion methanol plant in Kalama Thursday. Washington State Department of Ecology issued a shoreline conditional use permit for the plant itself and a water quality certification for a 3.1-mile natural gas pipeline to feed the methanol plant.

Thursday’s permits approvals came the day after the Southwest Clean Air Agency issued the project an air pollution permit. Together, the three permits mean Northwest Innovation is nearing the final stages of permitting, three years after the Chinese-backed company announced its plans for a project at the Port of Kalama. Port officials still are awaiting on federal permits for a dock it needs to build along the Columbia River.

“We’re excited about this. We appreciate everybody’s efforts in providing an exhaustive, thorough process and we look forward to moving on to the next steps of our project,” Vee Godley, president of Northwest Innovation Works, said Thursday.

An environmental group said it will appeal the issuance of the shorelines permit.

Ecology largely upheld several of the conditions included in a shoreline permit issued by Cowlitz County earlier this year, and it added new conditions to gradually curb the plant’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Originally, the plant was slated to release about 1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents annually, making it one of the largest single emitters of greenhouse gases in the state.

Yet the plant is subject to the state’s new Clean Air Rule, which requires major industrial sites to cut greenhouse emissions gradually. The new rule is currently being challenged in Thurston County Superior Court.

Ecology took the standards of the Clean Air Rule and incorporated them into Northwest Innovation’s shoreline permit itself. So even if the courts dismantle the Clean Air Rule, Northwest Innovation must still reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 1.7 percent annually until 2035. As an alternative, it could purchase credits to offset emissions or invest in projects that contribute to emission reductions.

The shoreline permit goes one step further, requiring the company to reduce emissions after its first year of operations, not just after three years like the Clean Air Rule would require, said Curt Hart spokesman for Ecology.

This is the first new major industrial project that will have to adhere those greenhouse gas standards, Hart said.

“I would say that yes, this requirement is unprecedented and we think this is how we get to environmental protection, protecting public health and the environment while still allowing (industrial projects with) water-dependent use,” Hart said.

Port of Kalama Executive Director Mark Wilson said the unprecedented move could have “implications for development throughout the state.” Wilson said that Northwest Innovation Works would help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally by replacing coal-based methanol with natural-gas methanol.

The plant will convert natural gas into methanol, which would be shipped to Asia to manufacture plastic for consumer products.

Godley said that Northwest Innovation still is evaluating the updated permit and he did not know yet how the company would cut emissions by 1.7 percent annually. Already the project is using an ultra-low emissions technology that significantly reduces greenhouse gases compared to traditional methanol manufacturing methods using coal.

Godley said the company would continue to “lead the industry” in new technologies to reduce environmental impacts from the project.

“We’ve tried to be an innovative leader in manufacturing in the state of Washington, and we will continue to do so,” Godley said.

The project would generate 1,000 construction jobs, 192 permanent jobs with an annual $21 million payroll and $36 million in local and state taxes, according to the final environmental impact statement.

Hood River-based Columbia Riverkeeper criticized Ecology for not going far enough to limit the plant’s greenhouse gas emissions, because the standards in the permit are not significantly different than the standards already in place under the Clean Air Rule.

“Ecology’s so-called mitigation does not add to this requirement. The permit also does nothing to address the climate impacts of fracking (to extract natural gas) and the emissions of shipping methanol overseas,” said Miles Johnson, attorney with Columbia Riverkeeper, which opposes the project.

Johnson said Riverkeeper will appeal Ecology’s shoreline permit and the final environmental impact statement released by Cowlitz County and the Port of Kalama. Opponents have 21 days to appeal the permit to the state Shorelines Hearing Board.

“From ocean acidification to rising sea levels to forest fires, Washington state is experiencing the catastrophic impacts of climate change. Approving the world’s largest methanol refinery flies in the face of Governor Inslee’s commitment to take action on climate change,” Johnson said.

Beyond the greenhouse gas standards, the permit requires the port to set aside 90 to 95 acres of land in a conservation covenant that bars the land from any future industrial development. The port also will have to preserve public access to the shoreline area located at the end of Tradewinds Road at the north end of the project.

The plant will have to follow on-site dredge disposal standards to protect water quality and take other steps to protect fish and riparian habitat.

Methanol ships docked at the terminal will have to connect to shore power to reduce air emissions from idling ships. When the terminal isn’t being used by Northwest Innovation Works, the port can use the dock as a lay berth for other vessels.

Northwest Innovation Works will not release any wastewater into the Columbia River because it will reuse industrial wastewater in its system.

Ecology Thursday also approved of the water quality certification for the 3.1-mile pipeline that would feed natural gas into the plant. The pipeline will be built by Northwest Pipeline, a subsidiary of Williams Co., and would cross through wetlands and streams.

The certification requires the pipeline company to first avoid negatively affecting water quality or put measures in place to offset any unavoidable adverse impacts.

“This is a major milestone for the project and a strong indication of the project’s progress. The order outlines various conditions with which Northwest Pipeline will comply,” said Sara Delgado, spokeswoman for Williams Co, in an email.

The only other major environmental permit the pipeline is waiting for is a federal permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Delgado said.

Johnson said Riverkeeper is still deciding whether to appeal the water quality certification, but added that, “Riverkeeper is disappointed that Ecology sided with gas companies and corporate interests instead of protecting Washington’s waterways and landowners.”

Before the methanol plant can be built, Northwest Innovation Works still needs a construction stormwater permit from Ecology, as well as other local, state and federal permits.

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