OLYMPIA — The Washington Department of Ecology wants more information about the environmental impact of a proposed methanol plant to be built in Cowlitz County before it decides whether to approve the project.
That decision represents a potential roadblock for Northwest Innovation Works (NWIW), the company that would build the plant.
The plant would use natural gas to make methanol, which NWIW has said would then be sold to customers in Asia to manufacture plastics.
The company has said the plant would be much cleaner than comparable coal-fired facilities in Asia. New technology would cut pollution even further, company officials say, and the plant wouldn’t discharge any liquids into the Columbia River.
But environmental groups — including the Columbia Riverkeeper — have vigorously opposed the project.
These groups contend that research underestimates greenhouse emissions associated with natural gas. They also question whether the methanol produced would be used for plastics, or if it would instead become transportation fuel.
In a letter Wednesday to Cowlitz County, the Department of Ecology requested more information about how the project would reduce its carbon emissions in Washington before the agency decides whether to approve a shoreline conditional use permit.
Ecology also wants more analysis of the project’s possible greenhouse gas emissions both in Washington and around the world.
“Our review of the county’s permit decision found significant information missing from the project’s supplemental environmental impact statement and inadequate analysis of the project’s potential effects on Washington’s environment,” according to an Ecology news release.
The department has set a Nov. 7 deadline for a response from Cowlitz County and the applicants. Once the agency has more information, it will decide whether more review is needed, or make a final decision within 30 days, according to the news release.
In an email, E. Elaine Placido, community services director for Cowlitz County, said the county will work with NWIW and the Port of Kalama in responding to Ecology’s request.
“This is a complex project, and it is not unusual to require additional information during the decision-making process, ” Placido wrote.
NWIW was reviewing Ecology’s letter, according to Kent Caputo, the company’s general counsel and chief commercial officer.
“This is an unclear and evolving regulatory environment,” Caputo wrote in an email. “While we are proud to be on the leading edge of driving very beneficial outcomes, both globally and here in Washington, this type of process is what crafting meaningful change looks like.”
Inslee has no veto power over the Kalama proposal. But he had originally signaled support for the project and once called it “one of the most innovative clean-energy projects in the nation.”
But this spring, when Inslee was running for president on a platform almost wholly devoted to fighting climate change, he yanked his support for the project. He cited as his reason the increasing threat of climate change.
In a statement, Dan Serres of the Columbia Riverkeeper said Wednesday’s request from the state meant “Ecology is holding NWIW accountable.”
With its proposed “fracked gas-to-methanol refinery on the Columbia River,” Serres said in prepared remarks, the company is “telling Washington regulators it will mysteriously help our climate.”