A study requested by the state says yes, but critics still disagree that the $2 billion plant would reduce global greenhouse-gas emissions.
LONGVIEW, Cowlitz County — Can the global campaign to limit climate change benefit from a $2 billion Washington plant making methanol for shipment to China’s plastic industry?
Yes, according to a study of greenhouse-gas emissions requested by the state Shoreline Hearings Board for the project planned for a 90-acre site at the Port of Kalama.
The 241-page document concludes that Washington methanol made from cleaner-burning natural gas will slow the growth of a Chinese methanol industry based on more expensive – and much more polluting – coal-based technology. If that happens, global greenhouse-gas emissions could be reduced by an estimated 9.7 million to 12.6 million metric tons annually, which would be the equivalent to the emissions from 2.2 million to 2.7 million cars.
“At the end of the day, the more natural gas-based methanol you produce, the more coal-based methanol is displaced, ” said Stefan Unnasch, managing director of California-based Life Cycle Associates, which produced the report with funding from project developer NW Innovation Works.
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The study addresses an important policy question in an environmental battle that is playing out on a planetary scale. But it has not ended the controversy over building the giant plant along the shores of the Columbia River, a development that would increase, by roughly a third, Washington state’s annual use of natural gas.
Some say the study seriously underestimates the amount of methane — a potent greenhouse gas — that would be leaked into the atmosphere during the production of British Columbia natural gas and delivery to the Kalama plant. They also find it overstates the prospects for Washington methanol replacing coal-based Chinese methanol and, in turn, the prospects for helping to combat climate change.
“It is not possible to say with any degree of certainty that this will displace coal-based methanol,” said Peter Erickson, a senior scientist with the Seattle office of the Stockholm Environment Institute. Erickson is a co-author of an analysis released this year that concluded the Kalama methanol plant would result in a net increase in global greenhouse-gas emissions, and thus “would be inconsistent with a low-carbon future.”
The Life Cycle Associates’ assessment will be reviewed by the Port of Kalama and Cowlitz County, which are putting together a final environmental-impact statement that also will receive scrutiny from the state Department of Ecology. Project developers hope permits can be finalized in time to break ground in late 2o19 for construction work that is expected to take three years.
The plant’s big appetite for natural gas has helped to make it a major target of environmentalist groups, which successfully challenged an early permit ruling and are likely to mount more legal challenges in the future. Within Washington state, the plant’s Kalama operation would have a significant greenhouse-gas footprint, boosting statewide emissions by more than 1 percent.
A Longview hearing last Thursday on the study drew hundreds of people, the vast majority wearing the red shirts of the environmental opposition that includes the Sierra Club and Columbia Riverkeeper. Both groups have fought the Kalama plant as an unwanted expansion of the region’s fossil-fuel use at a time they are pushing for more renewable-energy production.
“We think this is fundamentally the wrong type of project for Washington and the Columbia River, said Dan Serres, Conservation Director for Columbia Riverkeeper.
The critics also include Kalama Mayor Mike Reuter, who is wary that the plant’s enormous use of natural gas would strain the pipeline network that feeds the region.
“It is too much gas for one company — and that is my biggest concern,” said Reuter, who campaigned against the methanol plant in a 2017 election he won with 44 percent of the vote in a three-way race. He said in an interview that he was speaking for himself, not on behalf of the city, where many support the project.
A NW Innovation vice president, Clay Riding, says the natural gas coming from British Canada would roughly equal the amount that Puget Sound Energy delivers to its Western Washington companies. He says the regional pipeline system can handle the gas, which would not all travel some the same route. Some would come in along a north-south route through Western Washington. Other natural gas, also from British Columbia, would come through Eastern Washington and then west through the Columbia River Gorge.
The gas would reach the plant through a proposed 3.1-mile pipeline extension that would be built by Northwest Pipeline.
NW Innovation Works is a joint venture that was formed by CAS Holdings, a spinoff from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which also proposed a plant in Tacoma that was scuttled after fierce opposition and is still considering a plant in Oregon.
NW Innovation first signed a lease with the Port of Kalama in 2014. It would generate tens of millions of dollars in tax revenues over the years, 1,000 construction jobs and 200 permanent jobs. That promised economic boost has generated considerable support as many in the trade unions would like to find more work within Longview and nearby communities such as Kalama.
“I worked in this town in the paper industry for several years and unfortunately we don’t have a lot of jobs here anymore … so I’ve had employment outside of our county,” said Cameron Wilkinson, a 35-year old union steamfitter from Kelso. “It’s been a godsend for this community, and I look forward to this project.”
NW Innovation also has received praise from Gov. Jay Inslee , who early on called it “one of the most innovative clean-energy projects in the nation.”
The push to finalize permits comes as Inslee launches a new legislative effort to reduce the state’s greenhouse-gas emissions, and the governor has not made many recent public comments on the methanol plant.
Kent Caputo, NW Innovation Works commercial officer, says he has spent time with the governor’s staff, and “the support is still there. Very much so.”
A statement from Inslee’s office said NW Innovation Works “is going through a rigorous review and permitting process, we support and have confidence in this process.”