Politics & Government

With methanol on pause, new attention turns to PSE’s natural gas proposal

Six months ago, the second most controversial project at the Port of Tacoma looked like it had a clear path to construction. By 2018, Puget Sound Energy thought it’d be moving natural gas to ships passing through the port and storing some fuel there for homes around the region.

Now — even with backing from a wide swath of business, labor and left-leaning politicians — PSE’s proposed liquid natural gas terminal no longer looks like a sure thing.

The Puyallup Tribe is demanding another round of environmental reviews through an appeal it filed to the state’s shoreline hearings board. It’s scheduled to get a hearing in May.

PSE is proposing a $275 million liquefied natural gas production and storage facility that primarily would supply Totem Ocean Trailer Express (TOTE) — a shipping company with routes along the West Coast — and retain up to 8 million gallons of fuel for its customers on cold days that drive demand.

The environmental think tank Sightline Institute in January began raising questions about whether PSE may one day turn the plant into a large-scale export facility, a scenario that the company maintains is impossible because of its fairly small size.

Activists who halted a proposal that would bring a methanol production plant to the port have turned their attention to PSE’s liquid natural gas plan. They’ve been circulating a flier that PSE says greatly exaggerates the risks of the facility and stokes concerns about the potential for an explosion.

“The public needs to know,” said anti-methanol Red Line Tacoma member John Carlton, 54, who drafted the activist blast zone map based on information he obtained through news reports describing explosions and dangerous vapor clouds at other liquefied natural gas facilities, as well as from a well-known researcher’s summaries of liquefied natural gas risks.

As a result, PSE’s own project manager says the company is in a “defensive” posture trying to answer questions almost two years after it secured a lease from the Port of Tacoma and four months after the city of Tacoma approved a final environmental impact statement on the project.

“It’s unfortunate,” project manager Jim Hogan said. “We’ve had a number of public meetings and have gone and met with community groups. They have great questions. They’re the questions I’d ask. This Red Line Tacoma group never engaged with us in a constructive manner.”

What’s more, PSE by law cannot publish the data that it says could lay to rest fears about its liquefied natural gas project.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission forbids the publication of information that could be used to plan an attack against what the agency refers to as critical energy infrastructure, referring to facilities that produce energy or play a role in its distribution. That rule keeps PSE from posting on the Internet or otherwise distributing widely its study on possible safety failures at the site.

Instead, PSE and its consultant worked through almost 200 scenarios illustrating would have happen if natural gas leaked from the site. That work is to be reviewed by the Coast Guard, Tacoma Fire Department and the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

It included safeguards for massive earthquakes in the Cascadia Subduction Zone and tsunamis. In those scenarios, the worst-case fire keeps the risk to the confines of the PSE site about 550 feet from where its tanks would sit, the company says.

But because the study is not available to the public, people with questions about how it would work are left to wonder whether it really is as safe as PSE says. They’re especially worried about what may happen if a disaster at the PSE site leads to other explosions at the U.S. Oil refinery at the port, or if the proposed methanol project revives and brings another flammable neighbor to PSE.

“We have a potential disaster and they say they are only worried about 500 feet. That’s beyond belief to me,” said Steve Stroms, 67, a Red Line Tacoma member and retired engineer.

PSE has released the study to one of its primary critics, the Puyallup Tribe.

That release came after the tribe wrote a letter to the city in August that likened the LNG facility to “11 Hiroshima bombs.” It also included its own blast zone map that looks similar to the one being circulated now by Red Line Tacoma.

“Our gravest concern is the imminent endangerment to human life of an uncontrolled release from the facility,” the tribe’s letter said.

The tribe in December filed a lawsuit asking to stop the proposal because it wanted more time to study explosion risks after it received PSE’s study.

The tribe dropped the lawsuit in late January. Its new appeal to the state Shoreline Hearings Board does not mention concerns about an explosion or flammable vapor cloud. Tribal chairman Bill Sterud and attorney Lisa Brautigam did not return calls from The News Tribune.

In October, the city of Tacoma released an 850-page environmental impact study that set the stage for PSE to request permits to tear down the buildings that sit on the site it wants to develop. That document included 27 letters from residents, government agencies, business groups and politicians commenting on the plan.

Only one — from the Puyallup Tribe — directly opposed its construction.

The others generally praised it as a means to help ships wean themselves off of diesel fuel in favor of less-polluting liquid natural gas and delivering some extra capacity to PSE’s power grid. The report’s findings contributed to a decision that will reopen a fire station at the port. PSE is contributing $5.5 million to the new fire station, and the city plans to pay for its staffing with tax revenue it would gain from the PSE project.

“The PSE LNG proposal is a win-win for the citizens of Tacoma to improve our environment and help local companies succeed and remain robust employers in our community,” former Tacoma Mayor Karen Vialle wrote. Others who wrote to support the plant included Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy and Councilman Rick Talbert.

Recently, Sightline has pointed to vague language in the environmental study that caught the attention of researchers who believe it could be used to allow PSE to turn the natural gas site into an export terminal, supplying ships that deliver fuel to other markets. The document also does not estimate how many ships would visit its fueling terminal outside of ones owned by TOTE.

“We’re not just talking about TOTE. We’re talking the addition of an unspecified number of ships coming to the port that weren’t coming before,” Sightline senior research associate Tarika Powell said, suggesting the project might generate unstudied ship traffic or cause more pollution than projected in its environmental study.

Hogan has not talked with Sightline. When he’s been asked similar questions, he points to the scale of the project as just too small to become an export terminal. It can produce up to 500,000 gallons of liquefied natural gas a day and it can hold about 8 million gallons. By contrast, export terminals tend to be able to contain tens of millions or hundreds of millions of gallons of liquefied natural gas.

PSE has not named other companies that might use its facility to fuel ships. It aims to keep about 6 million gallons of fuel in storage to provide extra capacity for its power grid. TOTE requires 900,000 gallons a week, leaving about another 1 million gallons of fuel available for other ships every week.

Because of the new questions and appeal, PSE has pushed back its best-case scenario for opening the liquefied natural gas facility. Hogan said it’s eyeing 2019 now.

The tribe’s appeal to the state Shoreline Hearings Board is scheduled for a weeklong trial in May. It’s requesting more work by PSE to study possible harm to the environment, particularly the problems that could be caused by stirring up contaminated sediment in the Hylebos Waterway during construction. Hogan said PSE is ready to shift its construction to the Blair Waterway as a concession to the tribe.

If the project passes the shoreline board, PSE would seek demolition and then building permits from the city.

Those decisions provide openings for activists to weigh in to stop the proposal or compel PSE to undertake more steps to protect Puget Sound.

Hogan said PSE would not have been able to pass its environmental reviews if its proposal was as dangerous as its recent critics describe.

“The nice answer is the regulations require all the bad stuff to stay on our property,” he said. “If the Red Line Tacoma people don’t believe us or think we’re wrong, they’ll have their day.”