UPDATE (Thursday, Oct. 10 at 9:12 a.m. PT) — The decision to approve a proposed methanol plant in southwest Washington is on hold, as the Washington Department of Ecology pushes for more information.
Ecology officials called the application “incomplete” and said they needed more specifics about the project’s greenhouse gas emissions.
“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,” the Washington Department of Ecology said in a news release Wednesday.
“We want a lot more details about what they’re proposing to do,” said Ecology communications manager Jeff Zenk.
The company Northwest Innovation Works, or NWIW, wants to build in Kalama on the banks of the Columbia River. The $1.8 billion plant would convert natural gas to methanol. From there, NWIW said it’d be shipped overseas to markets in Asia for plastics production.
The company has touted its technology and use of natural gas piped in from Canada as a "cleaner" energy alternative. In a final environmental study released Aug. 30, the study found that the proposed facility would help reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by displacing coal-based methanol production in Asia. But environmental groups have pushed back on this assumption and called the company's greenhouse gas emissions analysis misleading.
In a letter to Cowlitz County's director of community services, Elaine Pacido, Ecology officials listed seven specific sets of information the agency wants regarding the company's proposed reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Those range from a list of emissions that would be included in the in-state mitigation plan to "an explanation of how NWIW proposes to select appropriate out-of-state carbon markets as mitigation for in-state emissions."
The letter also pressed county officials about the company’s claim it would have “no significant unavoidable adverse impacts.” Ecology wants more information to explain its analysis of greenhouse gas reduction.
“We would have liked to have seen the questions in our comment letter fully addressed in more detail,” said Neil Caudill with the Department of Ecology’s air quality program, referencing comments Ecology made on the project’s draft supplementary environmental review last December.
Caudill said the project is still largely in a design phase and wants NWIW to provide a variety of scenarios to Ecology of how the methanol could be used over a long period of time.
The Department of Ecology also has concerns about unanswered questions regarding the methanol’s use globally, and whether the methanol will be used for plastics or if it will end up burned as a transportation fuel.
Documents obtained by OPB this year suggested NWIW may have been misleading state regulators and was presenting a plan to sell its methanol as fuel in the Chinese transportation market to potential investors. Environmental groups who oppose the project say a move like that would dramatically change the analysis of greenhouse gas emissions from the Kalama facility.
Kent Caputo, NWIW general counsel, said the company has looked at the request to Cowlitz County and said they “foresee being involved with responses as needed.”
Caputo acknowledged the difficulty of the process, calling it “an unclear and evolving regulatory environment,” but said the company is “proud to be on the leading edge of driving very beneficial outcomes.”
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who has no final say on the project, initially supported the methanol plant. But in May, Inslee reversed his position on the project and said he could no longer stand behind it.
Environmental groups that oppose the project are encouraged by the Ecology department asking more questions.
“Ecology is holding NWIW accountable,” said Dan Serres, conservation director with Columbia Riverkeeper, a lead opponent of efforts to expand fossil fuel processing in Washington and Oregon.
“NWIW has proposed the world’s largest fracked gas-to-methanol refinery on the Columbia River, telling Washington regulators it will mysteriously help our climate,” Serres said in a statement. “Ecology is following the law and seeking complete and accurate information before deciding on a permit of such importance.”
The Department of Ecology has set a deadline of Nov. 7 for Cowlitz County, the Port of Kalama, and NWIW to provide more information to the state. Ecology will then have 30 days to determine if an additional environmental review is needed, or it will issue a final decision on the shorelines permit.