A recently released draft of an environmental review of Puget Sound Energy’s liquefied natural gas plant, under construction on the Tacoma Tideflats, has attracted new criticism over its findings that the plant would provide lower greenhouse gas emissions if the fuel is sourced from British Columbia.
This criticism comes during a 30-day public comment period for the review and before a public hearing on the review Tuesday at the Rialto Theater in Tacoma.
The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency ordered the new review, released Oct. 8, after finding the city of Tacoma’s environmental review incomplete. The agency is expected to release a final environmental impact statement in February before considering the plant’s air permit.
On Friday, the nonprofit Citizens for a Healthy Bay, which has spent nearly three decades advocating the cleanup and restoration of Commencement Bay, released a letter sharply critical of the review. In the letter sent to the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, the nonprofit, previously neutral on the $310 million project, said it was moving away from that position.
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“CHB finds that the LNG project poses unacceptable risks to Commencement Bay and the Tacoma environment.” states the letter, signed by the group’s executive director Melissa Malott.
An advance copy of the letter was sent to The News Tribune.
Questions posed by Citizens for a Healthy Bay and others critical of the project focus on the time frame used in the study, numbers behind the analysis and details of sourcing the gas from British Columbia. Citizens for a Healthy Bay also took issue with “the exclusion of tribal communities” in the process.
Puget Sound Energy, contacted concerning the questions arising from the report, said it was still reviewing the draft report and declined to offer a response. The company also noted it wanted to remain “respectful of the public comment process,” according to spokeswoman Janet Kim.
The public comment period runs through Nov. 21.
Citizens for a Healthy Bay, in its letter, asks the clean air agency to pause the process and issue another draft environmental impact statement for public comment.
The group sees the draft review period as an important opportunity to reset the process.
As for Friday’s letter, Puyallup Tribal Council Chairman Bill Sterud, in a statement, said: “We are thankful that other environmental allies like Citizens for a Healthy Bay and the Sierra Club have chosen to stand with the Puyallup Nation. ... “This study does not examine the truth of what this LNG plant will do to our people and our homelands.”
100-YEAR SPAN OF MEASURING VS. 20 YEARS
The Tideflats operation would convert 250,000 gallons of natural gas a day to liquid natural gas by chilling it to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit. The LNG would be stored in a 8 million-gallon tank under construction on the Tideflats. The plant primarily will provide about 900,000 gallons of LNG each week to TOTE Maritime for its two Alaska ships.
TOTE, so far, is PSE’s sole marine vessel customer for LNG from the plant.
“LNG is seen as the clean fuel of choice world-wide in the maritime industry,” PSE told The News Tribune via email Oct. 17. “PSE is currently talking to other potential maritime customers who want the cleanest fuel available for their vessels.”
The plant also will provide about 6 million to 8 million gallons of LNG for local customers during peak winter demand. PSE, in promotions of the project, says the site will help boost the reliability of the fuel supply for Western Washington.
LNG is promoted as a cleaner fuel than the bunker fuel used on marine vessels and as a way to lower greenhouse gas emissions and reduce particulates in the air.
PSE spokesman Grant Ringel told The News Tribune the day of the draft SEIS’ release: “We feel the (report’s) conclusion is consistent with our view of the project,” and that the project “will result in a net reduction of greenhouse gas.”
The environmental review prepared for the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency looked at the project’s life cycle of emissions. Methane, more potent in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, is the primary component of the natural gas coming to the LNG plant.
A gas’s global warming potential, or GWP, is a way to measure how much heat a greenhouse gas traps in the atmosphere. GWP is “a measure of how much energy the emissions of 1 ton of a gas will absorb over a given period of time, relative to the emissions of 1 ton of carbon dioxide,” according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. “The larger the GWP, the more that a given gas warms the Earth compared to CO2 over that time period.”
The environmental review lists methane as about 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. In determining that level, the report uses 2007 standards set by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. IPCC has since revised methane’s GWP upward.
In early October, the panel also warned that the global climate could reach a new tipping point with elevated temperature.
Citizens for a Healthy Bay was critical of the draft report using a 100-year time frame with 2007 standards, calling it outdated for an emission that should be measured in a shorter time frame.
According to the group’s letter, “At 100 years, after the methane emissions have lost most of their potency, the SEIS says the emissions from the plant would only be 4 or 5 percent better than the no action alternative.
“However, because methane’s potency is much higher in the first few decades it is emitted, examining the impact of methane emissions on a shorter timeline would show the climate impact of the LNG plant to be much worse than the no action alternative.”
The watchdog group and the tribe are not alone in questioning the review.
Todd Hay, president and founder of Advocates for a Cleaner Tacoma, said he is concerned about the GWP numbers used in the report.
“It doesn’t appear they’re using the best available science, particularly for the global warming potential,” he said. ‘‘We’re in a 20-year time frame to get things right or else we face serious consequences.”
A 20-year time frame for measurements gives methane a much higher GWP: 84 to 87 by EPA’s estimates.
Puget Sound Energy, the Puget Sound Clearn Air Agency and Ecology and Environment Inc., which prepared the review, declined to answer questions from The News Tribune about the report or its measurement methods during the public comment period.
WHY WERE THOSE STANDARDS USED?
The report calls the 2007 standard “the currently accepted international reporting standard and the method for State of Washington greenhouse gas reporting.”
It says the 100-year time frame “is consistent with the time horizons for the Tacoma LNG project. The project will have a duration of about 40 years and the consequences of the emissions will remain in the atmosphere for the lifetime of the long-lived CO2 emissions.”
As for how long the plant might be operating, Kim, the PSE spokeswoman, told The News Tribune: “The facility should be there as long as it serves customers’ needs. The current lease with the Port of Tacoma is for 25 years.”
The state uses the 2007 standard and the 100-year time frame as part of its greenhouse gas reporting program for industrial facilities and they are consistent with those used by the EPA, said Neil Caudill of the state Department of Ecology.
“We are aware that there is a significant time delay between publication of IPCC reports and adoption of (new numbers) at the federal and state level,” he said in a statement via email. “This is a standard practice as from a regulatory standpoint, consistency is very important when tracking reductions.”
The state will update its numbers when the EPA updates its list, Caudill said.
“This procedure requires both rulemaking and legislative approval,” he explained.
SOURCE OF GAS
A major point of the review was that natural gas for the LNG plant come from British Columbia. The project would reduce greenhouse gas emissions overall for the region because British Columbia’s “comprehensive drilling and production regulations” cut methane emissions, according to the report.
Emissions from natural gas production in the United States, the report said, “may be as much as five times higher than those for Canada.”
Are the U.S. or Canadian measurements accurate?
A 2015 study led by the Environmental Defense Fund accused the United States of underestimating emissions.
Canada has been questioned, too.
The David Suzuki Foundation, a Vancouver-based environmental science organization founded in 1990, reviewed methane emissions near Fort St. John, British Columbia in 2016.
In January, it reported “more than 85 percent of all actively producing gas wells were found to be venting methane gas directly to the environment daily,” adding that the findings “strongly suggest that fugitive methane emissions from this industry are being heavily underreported and/or estimated.”
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers disputed the findings while B.C.’s provincial government said they were interested in reviewing it.
The author of the Vancouver foundation’s report questioned whether British Columbia’s emission reporting figures could be trusted.
“The issue here is the government doesn’t know, the industry doesn’t know or doesn’t want to know,”John Werring, senior science and policy adviser for the foundation, said in a phone interview with The News Tribune.
“There’s a real problem with underreporting and lack of understanding of using the right numbers.”
A 2017 peer-reviewed study led by Matthew Johnson, a professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, said there could be 25 percent to 50 percent more methane emitted than what’s been reported in Alberta.
“Our first reaction was, ‘Oh my goodness, this is a really big deal,’” the study’s author, Matthew Johnson, told The Guardian in October 2017. “If we thought it was bad, it’s worse.”
A PROJECT ‘CHECKPOINT’
For his part, Hay, president of Advocates for a Cleaner Tacoma, is still researching the project and posting information online at http://toddhay.com/lng.
That effort is independent of his day job leading a data team at NOAA Fisheries Science Center and his work as a member of the city’s Sustainable Tacoma Commission.
“This is my evenings and weekends,” he said. “My free time.”
But it’s worth it, he said.
“It’s late in the day on this project,” Hay said. “This is a big kind of checkpoint for it.”
TO OFFER COMMENT
The draft SEIS is online at https://bit.ly/2QzElgI Copies also are available to read at Tacoma Public Library branches and at The Center at Norpoint (4818 Nassau Ave N.E.) in Tacoma.
How to send the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency comments on the draft environmental report:
▪ By mail: Puget Sound Clean Air Agency ATTN: Public Comment on DSEIS, PSE LNG Project, 1904 Third Ave, Suite 105 Seattle, WA 98101
▪ Fax: 206-343-7522
▪ Email: email@example.com
▪ In person: A public hearing is scheduled for Oct. 30 in Tacoma. Sessions will be from 2-5 p.m. and from 6:30-10 p.m. at the Rialto Theater, 310 S. Ninth St. Representatives from PSCAA, Ecology and Environment Inc., PSE, the Puyallup Tribe and others will be among those in attendance. Written and public comment will be accepted; speakers can sign up on first come-first served basis and verbal comments are expected to be limited to two or three minutes, depending on crowd size.