Business

A surprising thing about jobs: Landing them can bring their own troubles

Plans for a liquid methanol plant at the Port of Kalama took a hit last week over environmental concerns.
Plans for a liquid methanol plant at the Port of Kalama took a hit last week over environmental concerns. dperine@thenewstribune.com

It’s been an interesting week for two of our favorite recurring topics – economic development and international trade disputes – with a flurry of news items to be poked, prodded and analyzed.

As diverse as the industries and locations involved in those news stories might be, they have two crucial elements that make these themes relevant to readers: Washington companies and projects are involved, and at the heart of every one, what’s really at stake, are jobs.

We’ll start our tour of the state in Longview, where the the state Department of Ecology has rejected a permit application for a proposed coal export terminal along the Columbia River.

The project, an Ecology Department release said, “would have caused significant and unavoidable harm to nine environmental areas: air quality, vehicle traffic, vessel traffic, rail capacity, rail safety, noise pollution, social and community resources, cultural resources, and tribal resources.”

Actually it’s been a bad few weeks for Cowlitz County megaprojects.

The Shorelines Hearings Board sent back for a rewrite an application for a liquid methanol plant at the Port of Kalama, saying it failed to adequately account for environmental impacts, particularly with greenhouse gases, in converting natural gas to a feedstock for plastics production in China.

Tacomans will remember the Kalama project as a companion to one proposed for the Tideflats, before vocal opposition from community and environmental groups chased it away.

Sponsors of the Kalama project seem interested in fighting on, but the coal export project appears figuratively if not literally dead in the water. This should surprise absolutely no one.

When a flurry of coal and liquefied natural gas export projects were proposed for Washington, Oregon and British Columbia, there was considerable skepticism that any of them would make it to construction, given the political and regulatory realities of the Northwest, certainly in this state.

So far, those predictions are holding true.

Another coal export terminal, proposed for Cherry Point in Whatcom County, was quashed in 2016 by an Army Corps of Engineers ruling. LNG export projects, particularly in British Columbia, might make it, but it won’t be an easy or quick process to get the necessary approvals.

Those developments provided an interesting backdrop for a Seattle convention sponsored by the Site Selectors Guild, an organization of consultants that advise companies on where to locate offices, factories and distribution centers.

The organization’s chairman, who heads a site-selection company in South Carolina, noted the reputations of Washington and Oregon as being tough venues in which to get through environmental permitting, when asked about the perception of the Northwest in economic-development circles.

His company does a lot of work with automotive companies, which are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the Southeast in new production facilities.

Washington isn’t really a player for car production, what with its location on the edge of the continent, although given the antipathy to anything car or fossil-fuel related in some circles, maybe it wouldn’t want any of it even if it was.

But Washington is a player in aerospace, and the site-selector consultant said he’s seeing plenty of activity in the Southeast in that sector.

It’s not just Boeing in South Carolina, it’s Airbus in Mobile, Alabama, Honda Jet in North Carolina and Gulfstream in Georgia, and all the companies that want to sell parts and components to them.

Boeing’s decisions for its next generation of planes will mean big decisions for companies that want a piece of the aerospace business, starting with where to locate.

Speaking of aerospace, Boeing has taken time off from fighting with Airbus to go after Canadian aircraft maker Bombardier. Last week it scored a big win in an International Trade Commission case on a complaint of illegal subsidies (an anti-dumping case is still pending.)

The Canadians are not amused and are making noises about retaliating by canceling a pending military aircraft contract with … Boeing. Keep an eye on this one for further rounds, and the potential impact on jobs, including here.

Speaking of the trade commission, it recently issued a determination that imports of photovoltaic (solar) cells are harming domestic producers. That fight has ramifications for everyone from makers of solar-energy panels (Washington has several) to the Moses Lake company that makes raw materials for photovoltaics (the dispute with China has forced production curtailments and layoffs) to installers and to consumers.

It’s not all trouble and turmoil in the economic development world.

A California company last week announced plans for a Wenatchee foundry to create synthetic diamonds. Another announced it’s putting a plant in Spokane Valley to manufacture an engineered building material known as cross-laminated timber. Both projects bring the promise of jobs.

But even smaller projects like those aren’t trouble-free. Cross-laminated timber is seen as a productive use of trees to be cleared and thinned to reduce forest fire danger, but such sales often generate heat of a different sort, in the form of environmental opposition.

It’s easy to talk about the importance of jobs to families, to communities and to the economy. As the latest haul of news items demonstrates, it’s far tougher not only to find jobs but also to locate ones that won’t make someone somewhere unhappy.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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