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In Our View: Healthy skepticism over Kalama project wise

The Columbian
Published: November 27, 2019, 6:02am

The complexities surrounding a proposed methanol refinery in Kalama can be seen in Gov. Jay Inslee’s changing response to the project.

Inslee, a passionate advocate for combating climate change, initially supported the project, believing it would help reduce global carbon emissions. By May, he had altered his position, saying: “The age of consequences is upon us. 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.”

Inslee’s changing views reflect the considerable gray area of the proposal’s possible impact on the region. Because of that, the state Department of Ecology is right to demand a complete environmental review of the proposal, taking every possible step to ensure that the plant would meet the goals claimed by Northwest Innovation Works.

NWIW, which is backed by the Chinese government, has proposed a $2 billion refinery at the Port of Kalama to bring natural gas from Canada and convert it into methanol. The methanol would be shipped to China to make olefins — compounds used in everything from fabrics and contact lenses to iPhones and medical equipment.

Advocates say the methanol would reduce China’s use of coal to make methanol, thereby reducing that nation’s carbon footprint. Opponents dispute that assertion and claim that allowing the world’s largest fracked gas to methanol refinery would violate Washington’s commitment to reducing emissions.

Last week, the Department of Ecology said backers had failed to provide enough information about the plant’s greenhouse gas emissions. Regulators ordered further review, which is expected to take about a year. There is good reason for the delay.

Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of conservation group Columbia Riverkeeper, said: “The company continues to rely on this very dubious claim that their methanol is going to replace dirtier methanol made from coal. There’s just no justification for that. The Department of Ecology is doing its job.”

The project has a long list of supporters, including Cowlitz County and the Port of Kalama, and labor leaders wrote in an opinion piece for The Seattle Times that by “displacing far dirtier and dangerous ways of producing the goods we all rely on, NWIW is an example of what’s possible when we commit to solving problems together.” Local officials say the project would create about 1,000 construction jobs followed by 190 permanent positions.

That certainly would be beneficial to Cowlitz County and all of Southwest Washington. The question: At what cost?

If there were assurances that the methanol would, indeed, offset China’s use of coal, the benefits would be clear. But according to documents obtained by OPB, NWIW has told potential investors that the company intends to burn the methanol as fuel for transportation and manufacturing. This runs counter to what they have told state regulators.

The assertion that the methanol would be used for plastics allows the company to avoid the state’s stringent Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council process. The revelation that the truth might be something else calls into question the company’s motives and sincerity.

Bringing jobs to Southwest Washington and reducing global carbon emissions are worthwhile goals. But state regulators are wise to remain unconvinced.

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