Nearly six years ago, Washington state Gov. Jay Inlsee praised plans announced by a Chinese company a year earlier to build a methanol manufacturing plant at the Port of Kalama as something that “bodes well for Washington’s future.”
In a promotional video at the time, Inslee said Northwest Innovation Works’ plans for the plant along the Columbia River were “a fantastic step forward, because the carbon savings will be equivalent to taking millions, perhaps six million cars, off the road.”
The proposed plant would produce up to 10,000 metric tons of AA grade methanol per day, or 3.6 million metric tons per year, to be used in plastics manufacturing in China.
The three-year project would create more than 1,400 construction jobs, and nearly 200 permanent family-wage jobs.
Fast forward from that sunny day along the river, and Inslee and his Department of Ecology now are working to block the $2.3 billion methanol facility, and in the process deliver a low blow to the region’s economy.
The decision by Ecology last month to deny a key permit for the project cited a “significant increase in greenhouse gas emissions and inconsistencies with the Shoreline Management Act,” as principal reasons. Northwest Innovation Works maintains the project would lead to a net decrease of global greenhouse emissions.
The project’s future is unclear. But it continues to move forward on several fronts, and several important benchmarks lie ahead in 2021.
The Port of Kalama and Northwest Innovation Works appealed Ecology’s denial of a conditional use permit, stating the agency unlawfully applied shoreline criteria to the project.
In its appeal to the Shoreline Hearings Board, the city and NWIW said Ecology’s greenhouse gas review and subsequent decision “violate state law by illogically treating the project’s global greenhouse gas impacts as harmful to the shoreline environment” even though NWIW has committed to mitigate all in-state emissions. The decision also is not supported by the independent life cycle analyses, funded by NWIW, that determine more greenhouse gases would be emitted globally if the project isn’t built, according to the appeal.
The SHB could uphold Ecology’s decision, overturn it, or make a more nuanced determination. The SHB is not affiliated with any other unit of government, but is weighted toward the Inslee administration.
Three of the SHB members are Inslee appointees. The three other members include the State Land Commissioner or designee, a representative from the Washington State Association of Counties and one person from the Association of Washington Cities.
NWIW has requested another extension to its Southwest Clean Air Agency discharge permit, as construction on the 90-acre methanol plant has not yet started. “NWIW’s intention is to promptly commence construction of the facility as soon as necessary permits and approvals are obtained,” according to the extension notice. Public comments are due by March 23 and can be emailed to Wess@swcleanair.org.
Also, a federal court in November vacated federal Clean Water Act permits that had been approved in 2019 by the Army Corps of Engineers, sending the project back to the Corps for review, which could take months.
On paper, the dispute centers on greenhouse gas emissions. However, all of the emissions analyses point in the same direction: The plant would have a positive net effect on the amount of carbon dioxide spewed into the planet’s atmosphere. Given that, the Kalama project would be a win for the environment and the local economy.
There is something else at work here. The changes in the governor’s position, followed by the Ecology reversal, were followed by Inslee’s environmentally focused and short-lived presidential campaign, and a growing regional and national agenda against anything that could be seen as favoring fossil fuels of any kind, not just here but even in China.
The debate over the methanol plan appears to have attained a level of symbolic importance that overrides the real issues of regional economic development along the Lower Columbia. There is a growing callousness and disregard in Olympia for smaller cities and for Southwest Washington in particular.
This methanol project suddenly became a convenient issue on which non-fossil-fuel hardliners could draw a line in the sand. Developing a more comprehensive long-term approach to phasing out fossil fuels, and addressing complex issues of internal combustion engines, natural gas and electric power sources would make more sense. Developing an equally comprehensive long-term approach to an expansion of employment and economic growth of the Columbia River’s three international ports also is critical.
Instead, we get arbitrary, ideologically-driven actions that hurt a struggling regional economy. The NWIW methanol plant is supported by a broad cross-section of local business, labor and political leaders. The plant has no impact on the river, except to increase vital international shipping, and could kick-start our regional economy and grow state exports.
There are pressure points on the horizon where public support could help: Send comments to the Southwest Clean Air Agency by March 23, and send evidence and comments to the Shoreline Hearings Board. Also, there will be opportunities for public comments during a renewed environmental review by the Army Corps of Engineers. Now is the time to increase that pressure, to make our voices heard for our economic future.