Year after Tideflats methanol plant canceled, permits for Kalama version invalidated

The bare 90-acre site of a proposed methanol refinery located on Port of Kalama property along the Columbia River in Kalama in March 2016.
The bare 90-acre site of a proposed methanol refinery located on Port of Kalama property along the Columbia River in Kalama in March 2016. Staff file, 2016

A state hearings board has invalidated key permits issued to a nearly $2 billion project in Kalama that would convert natural gas to methanol.

The board reversed two shoreline permits for the Northwest Innovation Works project proposed along the Columbia River and invalidated an environmental impact statement upon which the permits were based in a judgment signed Friday.

The Kalama plant would have been a smaller version of one once proposed on Tacoma’s Tideflats. Northwest Innovation Works canceled its plans for a $3.6 billion methanol plant after strong community opposition last year.

The city of Tacoma’s approach to assessing environmental impacts was far more expansive than the Port of Kalama and Cowlitz County’s approach. Early last year, Tacoma planners said they intended to use a wide lens to examine the methanol plant’s environmental impact.

Tacoma’s environmental impact statement would have examined the entire life cycle of methanol — from the origin of the natural gas fracked in Canada, through the supply chain and included the impact of seagoing vessels used to transport the liquid to China as far as the country’s territorial waters, 12 nautical miles out to sea.

Had Northwest Innovation Works’ plans not been canceled here, the investigation would have included how air quality in the entire Puget Sound would have been affected by the additional shipping traffic.

This wide examination stands in stark contrast to the Kalama plant’s study. The hearings board said Cowlitz County and the Port of Kalama failed to fully analyze the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions from the project, including emissions from offsite sources like ship traffic and from the source of fracked gas in Canada. The board sent it back to them for further analysis.

Columbia Riverkeeper, Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity, which challenged the environmental review, cheered Friday’s decision.

“You can't build a massive fossil fuel project like this and pretend that the impacts end at the property line,” said Nathan Matthews, Sierra Club attorney in a statement. “The public deserves to know the climate impacts of fracked gas, from the wellhead to the pipelines to refinery, all the way to the export to Asia.”

Northwest Innovation Works President Vee Godley said the company is disappointed. He said in an emailed statement that the environmental review relied on guidance from the Department of Ecology.

“We understand that the environmental policy in this state is evolving and we look forward to continuing our collaboration with regulators, stakeholders, and environmental and business leaders to do our part to provide greater certainty and positive impact for our state’s economic and environmental goals,” Godley said in a statement.

The refinery would convert natural gas to methanol, which would be shipped to China to make plastics and other consumer goods.

Kate Martin: 253-597-8542, @KateReports