Tacoma LNG plant faces delay as clean air agency orders extra scrutiny

This October 2017 photograph shows the $310 million liquified natural gas plant Puget Sound Energy is constructing on the Tacoma Tideflats.
This October 2017 photograph shows the $310 million liquified natural gas plant Puget Sound Energy is constructing on the Tacoma Tideflats. phaley@thenewstribune.com

Environmental activists and the Puyallup Tribe are chalking up a win in their fight against the Puget Sound Energy liquefied natural gas plant being built on Tacoma’s Tideflats.

On Wednesday, the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency announced it would hire a consultant to do an in-depth analysis of the life cycle of greenhouse-gas emissions that would be caused by the proposed 8-million gallon plant. That study would need to be completed before PSE could get a required air permit for the project. The additional review, called a supplemental environmental impact statement, will delay the permit by several months and could potentially change the outcome of the permit application.

“What we identified in the scope of what we’re doing is to look at greenhouse-gas emissions leading up to the natural gas getting to the site — it’s kind of like the life cycle from the start of the fuel being produced to the end of the fuel being used,” said Steve Van Slyke, director of compliance for the clean air agency.

“Right now what we’ve got is a quantitative analysis of greenhouse gases for emissions on site, and what we’re looking for is a quantitative analysis of the greenhouse-gas emission effect downstream of the plant and upstream of the plant.”

That might include an examination of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, Van Slyke said. Some of the gas piped to the Tacoma site is expected to come from that source.

Puget Sound Energy spokesman Grant Ringel said the company is disappointed by the delay.

“At the same time, we encourage the agency to move forward quickly with the additional review,” Ringel said. “This project, a big piece of it is designed to significantly reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and particulate emissions, so we’re very confident it will clear these additional hurdles.”

The facility would produce 250,000 gallons of LNG a day. A storage tank at the plant would hold 8 million gallons of LNG. Most of that would be sold to customers, including the shipping company TOTE Maritime. PSE also plans to use the tank’s contents as a backup supply for high-demand gas days.

The utility repeatedly has touted the plant as a green project and has said LNG is much cleaner than the bunker fuel that big ships have historically run on. Critics, including those who vehemently oppose fracking, have said the plant would be dangerous and dirty. They have protested its construction on what was once tribal land, saying it’s being built without consulting the Puyallup Tribe.

For close to two years environmental advocates led by the group Redefine Tacoma have been calling for the city of Tacoma to reopen environmental review of the project, an additional step the city has said hasn’t been triggered.

In a statement, Puyallup Tribal Chairman Bill Sterud said the tribe applauds the clean air agency’s decision.

“We have made it clear from the beginning that this project has not been fully evaluated and poses significant safety and environmental risks to our tribal members and local residents. We are demanding that the city of Tacoma, Department of Ecology, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency demand PSE cease construction until the full environmental review of the project is completed and all permit requirements are satisfied,” the statement read.

“We continue to call upon the Army Corps of Engineers to step in as the federal trustee responsible for protecting the Puyallup Tribe’s trust and treaty protected resources. This facility is a direct threat to our homeland, culture, way of life and tribal members.”

PSE was dinged by the clean air agency once before over the air permit. The utility was issued a notice of violation in April for “failure to obtain a notice of construction approval prior to construction, installation, establishment or modification of a source,” according to a letter the agency sent PSE. PSE did not have a complete application at that time, Van Slyke said, and didn’t have the construction permit needed for the air permit.

In the course of reviewing the permit application, the clean air agency decided more work was needed to quantify the greenhouse-gas emissions the project would generate.

“This record needs to be adequate so we don’t leave something out that’s subject to direct challenge down the road,” Van Slyke said.

Next, the agency will solicit bids for a consultant to do the supplemental environmental impact statement. That consultant will work for the agency but will be paid for by PSE per the agency’s rules, Van Slyke said.

Work on the permit application will be on hold while the new environmental review is underway. After the draft supplemental environmental review is finished, there will be opportunities for public comment.

“This step of doing a supplemental environmental impact statement should not be interpreted as a sign that we’re not going to approve the project or are going to approve the project,” Van Slyke said. “It’s just an analysis and information we need to get on the table.”

Ringel, the PSE spokesman, said at this time the company expects the LNG plant to start operating in late 2019.

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud