In a word, the debate surrounding whether Tacoma should be home to the world’s largest methanol plant has been disappointing.
When airing grievances, it’s best to start at the top. Watching elected public officials, who are facing the kind of intense public scrutiny that should accompany a decision of this magnitude, duck from the matter has been sadly discouraging. The city and the Port of Tacoma both have significant roles in this long process. The “hey-don’t-yell-at-us” approach is a bad look.
Of course, our fearless political leaders aren’t the only ones who’ve occasionally come off poorly in all of this.
There’s real, legitimate concern over the merits of the proposed methanol plant. Even Gov. Jay Inslee — who, in the past, has stated his support of methanol as part of the transition to a clean energy economy — has recently admitted as much.
But when legitimate concern manifests into anti-Chinese rhetoric or hyperbolic fear peddling, it crosses a line from active citizenship into something different. Unfortunately, in recent months public meetings on the matter have sometimes devolved into the latter.
I think residents of Tacoma have every right to be skeptical about new industrial things coming here, because they’ve been treated so badly (in the past). And they should be asking really good questions to cover their interests. Center of Urban Waters Science Director Joel Baker
Methanol plant supporters bear some responsibility, too. Yes, the assumed jobs the plant would bring might be good for those struggling to find living-wage work. But the argument that Tacoma is not in a position to turn down new jobs is shortsighted.
If the environmental impacts of the plant are determined to be too severe, or — as a community — if we decide the production of methanol is not something we want to be complicit in, we have every right to hold out for more sustainable job creation.
In December, I wrote “The time for a methanol debate is now.”
Two months later, we’ve shirked and screamed, but we haven’t gotten much further.
So how do we salvage the conversation? An answer may start to emerge Thursday night at the University of Washington Tacoma.
That’s when UWT’s Center for Urban Waters will kick off a four-part discussion series aimed at providing “a common understanding of the technical and scientific aspects of this complex project.”
“We’re trying to kind of set the tone of providing a way for people to actually spend some time thinking about the proposal,” Joel Baker, the Center for Urban Waters’ science director tells me. “To have such a highly visible technical issue in the community really obligates the university to act as a neutral party.
“I’m an advocate of making sure people have the best information possible.”
In the supercharged space that this environmental and economic debate occupies, even such a reasoned stance is sure to elicit a heated response. Baker, an academic who describes himself as undecided on the methanol matter and harboring a number of “key questions,” is well aware of this.
He’s also aware that the fact that two former members of the Center for Urban Waters Advisory Board, Tom Luce and Rick Desimone, have done consulting work for Northwest Innovation Works (the Chinese government-backed company behind the proposed methanol plant) may raise eyebrows.
I’m an advocate of making sure people have the best information possible. Center of Urban Waters Science Director Joel Baker
“I think residents of Tacoma have every right to be skeptical about new industrial things coming here, because they’ve been treated so badly (in the past),” Baker concedes. “And they should be asking really good questions to cover their interests.”
“This (series) wasn’t the brain child of the advisory board,” he promises. “Frankly, we have other members on the advisory board who are dead-set against (the proposed plant). But I get the optics of this, and it’s a legitimate question. … I’m not for or against the plant. The more I dig into it, the more complicated it gets.”
In this spirit, Baker has spent the last few months trying to organize a series of events that will get at the crux of the looming decision.
Thursday’s talk will serve as a starting point, attempting to frame the issue while looking at the local and global perspectives on methanol. Future talks, meanwhile, will dig into the potential impact on regional water and power supplies, and the potential implications for the local environment.
The speaker lineup will include a wide array of voices, from Tacoma Public Utilities director of public affairs Robert Mack to Citizens for a Healthy Bay Executive Director Melissa Malott and Sightline Institute Policy Director Eric de Place. (Online registration is required.)
Here’s the disclaimer: If your position is that Tacoma shouldn’t be entertaining the idea of a methanol plant at all, then any discussion on the matter — even one rooted in science and engineering — probably isn’t going to do much for you. I get it.
But for the rest of us, since Tacoma is considering a methanol plant, having a rational, factual conversation seems like the least we can do.
University of Washington Center for Urban Waters Methanol Discussion Series
Framing the issues: Local to global perspectives
6-7:30 p.m. Thursday (Feb. 11), UWT’s Carwein Auditorium
Potential impacts on regional water and power supplies
6-7:30 p.m. Feb. 25, UWT’s Carwein Auditorium
Potential implications for the local environment
6-7:30 p.m. March 3, UWT’s Carwein Auditorium
Developing a common understanding to refine the discussion
6-7:30 p.m. March 10, UWT’s Carwein Auditorium
Register online at tacoma.uw.edu/methanol