As soon as a methanol plant developer pulled the plug on its $3.4 billion project in Tacoma this week, a myriad of reactions washed across the 253 area code.
Doom and gloom among hardhat unions that will lose hundreds of high-wage jobs promised at the Northwest Innovation Works plant on the Tideflats. Frustration among believers of the environmental review process who won’t get to see it run its slow, exacting course. A sense of inevitability among observers who could see the China-backed company begin to distance itself from Tacoma in recent weeks, as its relations with elected Port of Tacoma commissioners fell apart.
And of course, celebration among activists who fought to kill a project they’d pre-determined would poison the environment and endanger the public. There’s no question they wielded power through social media and traditional shoe-leather protests. But it was power largely built on fear, speculation and political intimidation, not on objective research, sound science and respectful debate.
One of the methanol foes Tuesday posted a famous quote by Margaret Mead, the late American academic: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
But it’s worth noting that Mead was, at her core, a scientist – a cultural anthropologist dedicated to watching change happen over time. Tacomans would do well to consider another Mead quote: “I was brought up to believe that the only thing worth doing was to add to the sum of accurate information in the world.”
Unfortunately, accurate information about the methanol plant came out in dribs and drabs. It was sparse in the spring of 2013, when NWIW started wooing state and local politicians with its “Double Green Bridge” vision to convert natural gas to methanol (and eventually Chinese-made plastics) in a way that would generate less global greenhouse gas than coal-fired plants do.
It was still sparse in the spring of 2014, when the Port happily signed a lease for 125 acres on the old Kaiser Aluminum site. And it remained sparse in the spring of 2016, despite the company’s empty pledges “to engage the Tacoma community in further dialogue.”
The void of information was made worse by what filled it – misinformation and hyperbole from opponents, including a fabricated blast-zone map and reports of accidents at methanol plants that use different technology.
NWIW might still complete two smaller plants on the Columbia River, but it didn’t cover itself in glory as it fumbled to develop the world’s largest methanol operation in Tacoma.
Its communication efforts, unsophisticated from the start, only got worse as public interest reached a fever pitch. Its information never caught up with its original idea, and the company didn’t seem to know what it had in Tacoma; for example, the partly polluted brownfield site was held up by NWIW President Murray “Vee” Godley three months ago as an asset, but on Tuesday he described it as a liability.
The company should have slowed down and asked to renegotiate the lease last fall, when it doubled the size of its planned operation in Tacoma. Instead, it waited until February to call its ill-fated “pause,” and by then it had lost control of the narrative to groups like RedLine Tacoma and Save Tacoma Water.
It also lost control of the clock. “We estimate that we would need at least three more years of development activities to perform the necessary due diligence, public process, and environmental analysis,” Godley said in a statement Tuesday explaining the pullout.
If his company and its overseas investors weren’t willing to spend the time and money to do that, then Tacoma is better off without them.
So what happens next? A beneficial place for Tacomans to start would be setting forth a manifesto of what we’re for, not against.
Let’s commit to ensuring this city has a strong industrial economy with skilled, livable-wage manufacturing jobs, built around a deepwater port that other cities would love to have.
Let’s commit to a healthy Puget Sound, clean air, renewable resources and safe workplaces and neighborhoods that other communities would love to have.
Let’s commit to making decisions based on thorough reviews and solid science, above all respecting each other and following the playbook and the referees that our system of laws has provided, which other countries would love to have.
And let’s start right away.
It won’t be easy, but it’s possible. Take it from Margaret Mead. “Human nature is potentially aggressive and destructive,” she once said, “and potentially orderly and constructive.”