The demise of a proposed methanol plant at the Port of Kalama is a step forward for Southwest Washington.
Northwest Innovation Works, a company backed by the Chinese government, announced last week that it was ending a seven-year effort to build the $2.3 billion project. The decision followed years of wrangling with state regulators that highlight the difficulty in defining the parameters of a green economy.
That difficulty is reflected in the shifting attitude of Gov. Jay Inslee, a passionate green-energy advocate who initially supported the proposal because company officials said it would help reduce China’s production and use of coal. By 2019, Inslee had changed course: “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.”
Proponents of the project, which included Cowlitz County, the Port of Kalama and several Cowlitz County lawmakers, quickly decried last week’s decision. They blamed burdensome regulation and overreaching government interference while pointing to the 200 jobs that would have been created.
That criticism is misplaced. Intense scrutiny from the state is necessary, particularly for fossil-fuel infrastructure that would alter the region for decades. Subterfuge from Northwest Innovation Works officials demonstrates the need for a strict review.
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, Northwest Innovation Works told potential investors that the company intends to burn the methanol as fuel for transportation and manufacturing. This runs counter to what they told state regulators.
The assertion that the methanol would be used for plastics allowed the company to avoid the state’s stringent Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council process. The revelation that the truth might be something quite different called into question the company’s motives and sincerity.
That, in the end, is what led to the demise of the project. When faced with probing questions about the facts of the proposal, company officials folded their hand rather than continue their bluff.
According to the proposal, the project would have brought natural gas from Canada and converted 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. The refinery, on the banks of the Columbia River, would have been the world’s largest fracked-gas-to-methanol refinery — a distinction that surely calls for detailed analysis.
That led to a process during which various permits were issued and then rescinded. In late 2019, the state Department of Ecology rightly ordered an environmental review that company officials had hoped to avoid. Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of conservation group Columbia Riverkeeper, said at the time: “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.”
That job is to protect the residents, environment and economy of Washington, rather than take the claims of a multinational corporation at face value.
In the long run, the people of Southwest Washington will be better off without a dubious methanol plant in their midst.