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Daily News editorial

We read with great interest Zack Hale’s story about Gov. Jay Inslee’s now-wavering support for the proposed Kalama methanol project. In case you missed it, the story ran in the Sunday, Feb. 11, issue of The Daily News.

Back in August 2015, Inslee was on hand at the Port of Kalama site to celebrate the Northwest Innovation Works project. At the time, Inslee’s support for the project was enthusiastic, even effusive: “This partnership, I think, highlights China’s growing confidence in the people in the state of Washington. I think that bodes well for Washington’s future.”

Now it seems Inslee is singing a different tune. The governor is taking a wait-and-see approach to the results of additional environmental reviews before voicing either his support or opposition to the project, according to a spokeswoman from the governor’s office.

Much like Millennium Bulk Terminals’ proposed coal dock in west Longview, Northwest is being required to conduct far more extensive environmental reviews than other similar projects in the state of Washington have had to complete.

Earlier this month, Northwest announced it is working on a “cradle-to-grave” review that essentially looks at every stage of natural gas and methanol production — from the fracking used to extract the natural gas out of the ground to the export of the methanol to Asia.

Millennium has spent more than five years and $15 million trying to get its project off the ground.

At least there are some folks benefiting from these protracted project reviews — attorneys. The exhaustive environmental review process for fossil fuel projects has spurred a good number of lawsuits. Millennium sued the state Department of Ecology and Gov. Inslee. So did Cowlitz County. The Port of Kalama and the county are now suing the state over the methanol project, too. And just last week, the state of Wyoming announced it was considering suing Washington State over its denial of key permits for the Millennium project for “unconstitutionally interfering with interstate and global commerce.”

It is hard to imagine many big businesses wanting to set up shop in Cowlitz County with such intensive — and for many, cost-prohibitive — regulatory reviews to deal with. It is also hard to imagine many businesses willing to step into such a legal and financial quagmire.

Whether you support or oppose the methanol or coal projects, there is a bigger issue at hand. Is this the best way for any city, county or state to do business?

The members of our editorial board have very differing views on the methanol and coal projects, but we all question the wisdom of requiring “cradle-to-grave” analysis.

We need to think carefully about how we want to present ourselves — as a community — to prospective businesses and employers. Are we open and receptive to new businesses? Have we created an equal and fair playing field, or are the odds already stacked against certain businesses or industries? Are we good community partners?

We worry this step has already set a bad precedent for all new projects, that new companies will be leery doing business here. Is this the kind of analysis all new projects can expect? If so, Washington, and Cowlitz County, may as well hang up a “Closed for Business” sign at the state and county lines.

There are other questions about the end-to-end review process itself. How feasible is it to get all of the data being requested? How reliable is this data? It’s easy to imagine that other countries’ methods for conducting and gathering environmental analysis could be much different than here in the U.S. If businesses and the state Department of Ecology will have to rely on outside data, will this make cradle-to-grave analysis even more difficult? What happens if that data, or the technology to obtain it, isn’t available? Are there workarounds, or does it bring the project to a grinding halt?

Most people, including those on our editorial board, would agree that new projects do warrant environmental review. But the scope of the review needs to be both reasonable and realistic. For example, rather than requiring a company to analyze natural gas extraction in Montana, Wyoming or the Dakotas, let’s partner with those states’ environmental agencies which likely have already completed their own environmental reviews when the fracking companies began operating.

We also need to ensure that we aren’t changing the rules along the way. Both Millennium and Northwest Innovation Works have been tasked with additional and more thorough environmental reviews than they were originally told. Moving the goalposts halfway through the game is bad business.

Last May, the state House and Senate passed a “shot clock” bill sponsored by state Rep. Brian Blake and co-sponsored by state Rep. Jim Walsh. An equivalent bill was sponsored in the Senate by state Sen. Dean Takko. The new law, which was signed by Gov. Inslee, puts pressure on regulators to complete a state environmental review of development projects within two years. It’s a step in the right direction.

The timeline for getting new projects either approved or rejected has been problematic. Continued delays can cost millions of dollars and frustrate new businesses, setting yet another bad precedent.

Northwest Innovation Works had hoped to break ground on its Kalama methanol project sometime in 2016, with an opening date planned for 2018. Given the ongoing lawsuits, permitting problems and additional environmental reviews, it’s now nearly impossible to predict a realistic timeframe.

Inslee once said the methanol project would move the state’s “clean energy future forward at a very rapid pace.” But as so often seems to happen when government oversight is involved, rapid quickly slows to a glacial crawl.

We hope, for all our sakes, businesses and state government find a better way to work together.

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