LONGVIEW — A proposed $2 billion methanol plant along the Columbia River at Kalama would cause a lower net reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions than previous environmental studies concluded, according to a draft analysis from the state Department of Ecology released Wednesday.
The state concluded that environmental benefits from the proposed plan would be substantially lower than an earlier environmental study by the Port of Kalama and Cowlitz County.
The draft supplemental environmental impact statement released Wednesday also determined that the nearly 1.1 million tons of in-state greenhouse gas emissions by the Northwest Innovation Works’ project can be mitigated by environmentally friendly projects.
NWIW, a local methanol producer, wants to build the plant on land leased from the Port of Kalama. The proposed plant, employing up to 200 people, would convert natural gas into methanol for use in plastics manufacturing in China.
The plan, first proposed in 2014, has generated considerable opposition from environmental groups, including two lawsuits.
“This is the analysis Ecology needed to be able to make a decision on the (shoreline conditional use) permit,” said Stuart Clark, special assistant to the director of Ecology.
Proponents of the project say they are pleased with the nearly 200-page draft study because it confirms that the plant will have a net positive effect on the environment, even if the numbers are more conservative than earlier studies.
“We are only just digging through it. It’s a substantial read. But fundamentally this report is further strengthening and validating the underlying premise that not only does this project represent a substantial net benefit from a global perspective in terms of addressing greenhouse gases, but also our ability now to mitigate in the state of Washington for any and all of our direct and indirectly related emissions,” said Kent Caputo, NWIW chief commercial officer.
Opponents contend that Ecology’s report shows that earlier studies “low-balled” the amount of pollution the project will cause. Representatives with the Columbia Riverkeeper conservation group said they still stand against the plant because it will significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions, including substantially boosting in-state emissions.
“Certainly we will be urging the Department of Ecology to deny this project because we think it’s fundamentally inconsistent with Washington’s clean energy and climate goals,” said Dan Serres, conservation director with Riverkeeper.
Cowlitz County is the review agency for the methanol project and has twice approved a shorelines permit for the project. Ecology now has to either affirm that decision, reject it or approve it with conditions, but Ecology officials said they couldn’t make a decision without sufficient analysis. The draft study is the first step in gathering the necessary information for the permit decision, Clark said.
Economists expect worldwide demand for methanol to increase in the coming decades, so global greenhouse gas emissions will increase with or without the Kalama plant, according to Ecology’s draft study. However, if NWIW builds its plant, the pollution boost would likely be about 6.6 million tons less per year.
That’s because NWIW would use a cleaner, more efficient method for producing its methanol than some other plants, such as coal-to-methanol facilities.
Clark said the study “refines” previous findings from an analysis completed by the Port of Kalama and Cowlitz County, which predicted an annual 13.7 million ton net decrease in global emissions with the methanol plant.
The port-county study assumed that all of the methanol the Kalama plant would displace would come from coal-to-methanol facilities, while Ecology’s study considers displacement for multiple sources of methanol.
Ecology’s study also assumes the end-use of the methanol will be about 60% for plastics or materials and 40% for fuel. NWIW says the methanol produced at its plant will only be used to make materials, so the port-county study focused on a plastics-only end-use.
“Once this methanol leaves Washington and gets into the supply chain out there, you can’t really control it,” Clark said. “If the demand goes up in a moment of time for fuel in a location, then some methanol will be directed there. If demand for plastic goes up, it will be directed there. … We felt that looking at fuel was important in the analysis to be honest, to be open and to be clear about that.”
The company says the project would create 1,000 construction jobs and up to 200 permanent direct family-wage jobs, as well as providing $30 million to $40 million in annual tax payments paid to state and local governments.
The Kalama facility would increase greenhouse gas emissions in Washington state by about 1.1 million tons annually, according to the study. It would be one of the 10 largest emitters in the state.
NWIW has pledged to offset all of its in-state emissions. The company created a mitigation plan to do so.
In it’s analysis, Ecology determined that in-state emissions are “significant and capable of being mitigated.” It attached a copy of the company’s mitigation plan as a reference.
“Obviously there will be a lot of detail that has to be worked out, but Ecology invested a lot of time and a lot of focus in working with us to make sure they understood … the mitigation framework,” said Caputo, the NWIW representative.
He called the study “robust” and “thorough,” noting that it takes an “even more broad view” at potential greenhouse gas emissions that previous studies, including the plant’s effect on the methanol-for-fuel markets.
That might account for some of the differences in the total emissions benefits, he said.
“They are coming at it from a more conservative view, taking into account some pretty aggressive questions,” Caputo said. “Folks were concerned about the fuel question, trying to differentiate the materials pathway versus the fuel pathway. … Ecology said if you put more methanol into the market, more can become fuel.”
That means the methanol made in Kalama could lead to more methanol-as-fuel use, even if it is not directly burnt as fuel.
Ecology’s approach is “an agnostic, conservative effort to answer the fuel question,” Caputo said.
“It put the question to bed and still has a dramatically positive outcome,” he said.
Mark Wilson, executive director for the Port of Kalama, said he “feels pretty good” about Ecology’s analysis.
“While we may disagree on the overall values of how much greenhouse gas benefit there is, there is still a substantial greenhouse gas benefit under their analysis and our analysis. That means it’s a good project,” Wilson said.
Ecology’s findings also agree with “what we’ve said from the beginning,” he said. The port and NWIW know that the project will increase global greenhouse gas emissions. But it can mitigate the in-state pollution and also help the world market produce methanol in a “cleaner and more environmentally responsible way,” resulting in less emissions overall.
“It’s been what we’ve been saying from the beginning. It’s actually good. It produces a net benefit to the planet by doing it,” Wilson said.
Serres with Columbia Riverkeeper said the conclusions that global emissions will be lower with the plant than without are “speculation.”
“We are really focused on what this project would actually do: Producing the methanol, fracking the gas, burning the methanol. And we can see those impacts clearly now, and those are tremendous,” he said.
The “black and white mathematics” show the plant would be responsible for at least 4.5 million tons of carbon pollution annually, Serres said. That includes more than one million tons of in-state emissions, which is enough to make the plant the state’s seventh or eighth largest polluter.
“We will be calling on ecology to really focus on those things we clearly understand as a state and make a decision based on those things.”
Ecology will accept public comments on the study through Oct. 2. Comments can be submitted online or by mail. Specific submission details are available online at https://bit.ly/2ZhIXiD.
The agency also will host virtual hearings on:
• 1 p.m. Sept. 17
• 10 a.m. Sept. 22
• 6 p.m. Sept. 22
Each meeting has a 1,000-person attendance limit. Participants should register for a spot online through Ecology’s website.
Once the public comment period is completed, Ecology will issue a final study. The agency will consider that information in its decision about the shoreline conditional use permit for the project.
“We believe this completes all the analysis that’s needed. We stand behind the study,” Clark said. “We also, obviously, have to put it out in the public domain, and somebody might point out a technical glitch.”