An environmental group has mounted a legal challenge to the permitting process for a $1.8 billion methanol plant proposed for Kalama, Cowlitz County, that if successful could result in significant delays.

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An environmental group has mounted a legal challenge to the permitting process for a $1.8 billion methanol plant proposed for Kalama, Cowlitz County, that — if successful — could result in significant delays for the project.

Columbia Riverkeeper, in a petition filed this week, seeks to shift the review now led by local governments to the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council.

To bolster its case, it cites internal state emails that indicate the state site council Chairman Bill Lynch in November 2013 initially thought his agency should take the lead in the permitting. The developer thought the law said otherwise, and the site-evaluation council eventually concurred.

Columbia Riverkeeper opposes the methanol project, and the petition is the first step in a challenge that could result in a lawsuit to try to force the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council to take charge.

“If the council asserts jurisdiction, the result will be a thorough, transparent review process,” wrote Miles Johnson, an attorney for the Hood River, Ore.-based group, in the petition.

The Kalama plant proposed by Northwest Innovation Workswould convert natural gas to methanol for shipment to China for use in plastics manufacturing.

Gov. Jay Inslee has called the proposed methanol plant “one of the most innovative clean-energy projects in the nation.”

Inslee helped lay the groundwork for the plant during a 2013 trade mission to China, and it has received considerable support in Kalama, unlike a now-abandoned proposal to build a methanol plant in Tacoma that generated fierce opposition.

An environmental review is now being led by the Port of Kalama and Cowlitz County, which has released a draft document examining the impact of the project.

The local agencies took charge after officials of the site-evaluation council decided they did not have jurisdiction over the process.

The council was established by the Legislature in 1970 to conduct “one stop” permitting for major energy facilities and was also charged with an oversight role once they begin operations. The process can be lengthy, such as the still-unfinished review of the proposed Vancouver Tesoro-Savage oil-by-rail terminal begun back in 2013.

A council review culminates with a recommendation to the governor on whether to approve or reject a project.

The Columbia Riverkeeper petition includes emails obtained under a state public-records request between council Chairman Lynch and a governor’s staffer.

In a November 2013 email to Inslee aide Keith Phillips, Lynch wrote that his agency appeared to have jurisdiction over the permitting. Lynch said that he had consulted with the council’s manager, Stephen Posner, and “we both agree with that interpretation.”

Representatives of the plant developers scheduled a January 2014 meeting with Phillips to discuss permitting. During that meeting, the developers were unsure what type of permitting process they preferred, according to Phillips.

But Northwest Innovation Works eventually concluded the site-evaluation council did not have jurisdiction, and the company president laid out the legal case in an August 2014 letter to Posner.

In September 2014 response, Posner agreed with the company’s view. He wrote that under state statutes his agency did not appear to have jurisdiction.

Amanda Maxwell, a spokeswoman for the council, said Lynch’s initial email asserting jurisdiction came on his first week on the job, and after only a cursory review. She said the final council decision was based on a more thorough review with more information about the project.

In a recent email to Phillips, Lynch wrote that the council’s jurisdiction extended to refined products, and that methanol is not considered such a product.

Maxwell said the council must decide within 30 days whether to dismiss the Columbia Riverkeeper petition or set a date for a hearing on it.