OLYMPIA – State Rep. Richard DeBolt says a proposed $2 billion methanol-production facility in his Southwest Washington district could simultaneously cut global greenhouse-gas emissions and create good jobs in a region largely locked out of the Puget Sound’s economic boom.
DeBolt, a Republican from Chehalis first elected in 1996, has met in recent years with state officials to promote the Kalama, Cowlitz County, project. The plant would use natural gas to make methanol, which DeBolt and others say would be exported and turned into plastics.
But when DeBolt has discussed the project with the state Department of Ecology or the office of Gov. Jay Inslee, it hasn’t been as a representative of his district.
For three years, DeBolt has held a job as director of external relations with Northwest Innovation Works (NWIW), a Chinese-backed company shepherding the proposal through a maze of local, state and federal permits. He earns at least $120,000 annually in the role, according to state financial-disclosure records.
It’s a perfectly legal situation in Washington’s part-time Legislature, where public service and private jobs often co-exist. Some lawmakers are farmers, others are lawyers and nurses. Some own businesses. One state senator is a registered foreign agent for the Cambodian government.
DeBolt said he and his company have stayed within ethical guidelines and always disclosed his role. No bills have come before the Legislature that directly impact the project, he said, which would have required him to consider recusing himself.
“Everybody has a job in the outside world, it’s just up to you to make sure that … you don’t do anything that would charge against your ethics,” said DeBolt.
But that hasn’t stopped an environmental group opposed to the project from raising questions about DeBolt’s dual role in Olympia, and disputing how clean the project would actually be.
The project’s fate is likely to be determined by county and state officials after a final environmental impact statement is released in the coming weeks or months.
That review – which isn’t being conducted by the Legislature – could lead to its ultimate approval, changes to the proposal or possibly the denial of a key final permit.
The Kalama methanol project has drawn fierce opposition from environmentalists, including a legal challenge by the Columbia Riverkeeper, who question whether the plant would actually reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
Environmental groups contend natural gas isn’t as clean a replacement for coal-powered facilities. And they question whether the Kalama plant’s methanol will ultimately be used for plastics.
Columbia Riverkeeper Executive Director Brett VandenHeuvel said it is inappropriate for a lawmaker to promote a project to the Department of Ecology when he votes and works on state budgets that fund the same agency.
“It puts Ecology in a terrible position, when a legislator who controls your budget is telling you to approve a permit,” said VandenHeuvel, of the Oregon-based advocacy group. He added later: “He is using his position as a legislator to pressure a state agency; that’s over the line.”
In recent weeks, the organization helped lead a protest near the project site and sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Treasury raising questions about China’s involvement in the project.
DeBolt’s job at NWIW – director of external relations – is similar to the position he ultimately held during his long career working for TransAlta. That company owns a coal-power plant in DeBolt’s 20th legislative district that will soon begin shutting down.
Ecology officials said their meetings with DeBolt were routine for such large projects. Early on, the agency asked DeBolt about his role and they all made clear that he was meeting only in his capacity as a company representative, not as a legislator, according a spokesman for the Department of Ecology.
The discussions with Ecology focused on the complexities of permitting such projects, according to Perry Lund, a regional manager with the agency, who has been in those meetings.
Likewise, Inslee chief of staff David Postman said that when DeBolt met the governor’s office about the Kalama project, it was in his capacity as a company representative. Such meetings with supporters and opponents of large projects are not unusual, Postman added.
The governor early on had expressed support for the project, but last month came out against it.
Since he’s been a visible part of the project for a few years, DeBolt also said voters have had a chance to evaluate the dual role.
“I’ve been through an election, and my constituents know I work here,” he said. “And it has never been a secret.”
The Kalama project is one of several recent flashpoints between companies and environmental advocates involving projects that would export fossil fuels or materials such as methanol to Asia.
In recent years, bitter battles have raged over proposals like a coal-shipment terminal, which saw its permits rejected by the state last year, and a liquefied natural-gas plant currently proposed for Tacoma.
The Kalama project would use natural gas to make methanol, which NWIW says would then be used to make plastics in Asia.
The company contends its process would be far cleaner than similar, coal-powered plants in China. The Kalama facility would have state-of-the-art technology, DeBolt said, to further reduce pollution, and it wouldn’t discharge any liquids into the Columbia River.
“Everything about this project is cleaner than anything anybody’s ever done,” said DeBolt.
A draft supplement environmental statement requested by the state Shoreline Hearings Board and released late last year supports that position.
That review found the Kalama plant’s output would slow down the coal-based methanol industry in China. If that came true, it could translate to a global greenhouse-gas emissions reduction of between 9.7 million and 12.6 million metric tons per year.
Environmental advocates, however, dispute whether the study accounted for all the greenhouse-gas emissions from the production of natural gas, which would come from outside the state. That includes concerns about a widely-used method for extracting natural gas known as fracking.
“Once you consider the impacts of fracking and the very potent greenhouse gases from fracking and along the [gas] pipeline route, so-called natural gas is not that much cleaner than coal,” said VandenHeuvel.
He also pointed to a slideshow made public earlier this year intended to woo investors to finance the Kalama project.
The company has said its methanol would be used to make plastics. But the slideshow also emphasized a growing market in Asia for methanol as transportation fuel for trucks, car and ships.
VandenHeuvel called it evidence the company “intentionally misled” state regulators and the public.
The Department of Ecology also noticed. The agency asked that the upcoming final environmental impact statement review methanol’s use as transportation fuel, which it said is not as clean as when used for plastics.
DeBolt and Kent Caputo, NWIW’s chief commercial officer and general counsel, said they would have called for changes to the slideshow if they had seen it first.
“We would be the first to admit, if you look at it out of context, it creates confusion,” said Caputo, who in the 1990s served as general counsel for Democratic Gov. Mike Lowry. “But Kalama is dedicated to a materials pathway [to make plastics]. Always has been.”
In 2017 and 2018, DeBolt and Caputo met a handful of times each with the Department of Ecology and the governor’s office about the project, according to state records.
Quarterly disclosure records by the Department of Ecology show DeBolt also discussed a few times in 2017 and 2018 with the agency unrelated legislative matters, including the budget. DeBolt said he did not talk about the Kalama project in those meetings.
In its meetings with the governor’s office, NWIW hoped Inslee could bring the company and environmental groups together to discuss ways to ease opposition to the project, according to Postman, who attended the session.
“The short answer is, no, we never did that,” Postman said.
DeBolt said the company “wanted an opportunity to sit down with all the stakeholders.” Later on, the Sierra Club, which has also challenged the project, made it clear it didn’t want to sit down with NWIW, he added.
Inslee – who is running for president with a near-singular focus on combating climate change – had been an early supporter of the Kalama project.
But last month, the governor pulled his support from it and the proposed liquefied natural-gas plant for Tacoma. Inslee has no veto power over the project.
With dire projections about the consequences of climate change, the governor decided natural gas was no longer viable as a so-called “bridge fuel” on the way to cleaner energy down the road, said Postman and Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith.