Will the Washington state Department of Ecology approve or deny a massive new fossil-fuel project on the Columbia River? The obvious answer is deny, especially for a state leading the way on climate action.
A fossil-fuel corporation called Northwest Innovation Works (NWIW) seeks to upend Washington’s efforts to combat climate change by building the world’s largest fracked gas-to-methanol refinery in Kalama. The corporation has made startling, misleading claims, asserting the highly-polluting project will somehow benefit our climate. We are encouraging the Department of Ecology to cut through the company’s false claims and deny the project.
The Kalama methanol refinery threatens Washington’s greenhouse gas reduction goals. The refinery would use up to 320 million cubic feet of gas per day — more than all other industries in Washington combined — to produce the petrochemical methanol. Methane — a powerful greenhouse gas — will pollute the atmosphere at each stage of fuel production. The processes of fracking, transporting gas and refining methanol will generate millions of tons of greenhouse gas pollution each year. And the potential combustion of millions of tons of methanol for fuel will contribute even more pollution.
All of this led Gov. Jay Inslee to oppose the Kalama methanol refinery in May. “The age of consequences is upon us,” explained Inslee. “The accelerating threat of climate change and the emerging science on the damaging impacts of natural gas production and distribution mean we must focus our full efforts on developing clean, renewable and fossil-fuel free energy sources.”
NWIW’s claim that the plant will reduce greenhouse gas emissions rests on the argument that the methanol will displace coal used to produce olefins (a feedstock for plastics) in China. First of all, replacing coal with fracked gas is like trading cigarettes for vaping. It’s past time to break the fossil-fuel habit. Second, NWIW’s displacement theory is dated and based on flawed assumptions. China is already moving away from coal to meet its clean energy goals. In May, Hydrocarbons Technology reported that the share of China’s olefins coming from coal peaked at just 16%, and no new coal to olefin plants are coming online. NWIW’s attempt to use coal as a boogeyman to promote its fracked gas refinery is not fooling anyone.
NWIW’s displacement theory falls apart entirely if the methanol is burned as a fuel in vehicles. Washington’s clean-energy plans envision electric vehicles charged by the sun replacing fossil fuel combustion engines. NWIW knows that Washington leaders would never support a fossil-fuel refinery to export dirty fuel — Washington’s last refinery was built in 1972. Just as the company was promising Washington regulators that end users in China would never burn its methanol, the company was telling potential investors that the project could deliver gas as a fuel to China. In leaked power point presentations, NWIW pitched their plan to sell methanol as “convenient LNG” fuel for overseas industry. So NWIW lied.
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Why does this matter? Burning the plant’s full methanol output as fuel would emit a stunning 5 million tons of carbon a year and slow the transition to clean-energy vehicles, something the company is trying to hide.
Let this settle in: NWIW is proposing the world’s largest gas-to-methanol refinery on the Columbia River. It is telling investors that the project will provide methanol to be burned as fuel while simultaneously asking Washington regulators to believe that the methanol will never be burned.
These issues were raised during the public comment period, but NWIW’s response was totally inadequate. The Department of Ecology determined that NWIW’s application for a key state permit is incomplete. Ecology asked pointed questions about the purpose and impact of the Kalama refinery proposal. NWIW now has until Nov. 7 to respond. If, as before, the response is inadequate, we hope Ecology puts a stop to NWIW’s charade and denies the project once and for all. Time is short, the threat of climate change is accelerating, and we are counting on Ecology to step up to the task.
Paul Thiers is an associate professor of political science at Washington State University Vancouver with a research specialty in Chinese environmental, energy and climate change policy.
Dan Serres is the co-director of the Power Past Fracked Gas Coalition, which works to protect the health and safety of Pacific Northwest communities and climate by accelerating an equitable transition off fossil fuels.