In Our View: Conundrum in Kalama

Proposed methanol plant raises same difficult issues as Vancouver oil terminal

The Columbian

Published: February 23, 2018, 6:03 AM

After years of contentious debate over a proposed oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver, a proposal for the Port of Kalama sounds familiar.

For more than two years, Chinese-backed Northwest Innovation Works has been moving toward construction of one of the world’s largest natural gas-to-methanol plants. The $1.8 billion project would produce methanol for transport to China, and it raises many of the same issues that have been prevalent in discussion about an oil terminal in Vancouver.

The Vancouver project would import crude from the Bakken region by train, then transfer it to marine vessels for a journey down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean. The proposal has been rejected by Gov. Jay Inslee, and the companies behind it have about one more week to file an appeal. Even if Andeavor (formerly Tesoro Corp.) and Savage Cos. challenge the governor’s ruling, Port of Vancouver commissioners are expected to decline to renew the companies’ land lease, killing the project.

Many of the issues that have surrounded the oil terminal are echoed in the Kalama proposal: The risk of calamity or long-term environmental degradation; danger to the health of the Columbia River; and concern about air quality in the region. These are countered by a well-founded interest in bringing family-wage jobs to the area, an issue that is particularly crucial in economically distressed Cowlitz County.

But of equal concern is Washington’s role in creating an environmentally conscious economy. That has Inslee, as The (Longview) Daily News put it, in a pickle.

“This partnership, I think, highlights China’s growing confidence in the people in the state of Washington,” the governor said when the proposal was announced in 2015. “I think this bodes well for Washington’s future.” He added that the project “moves our clean energy future forward at a very rapid pace.”

Since then, Inslee has tempered his support. And the project has suffered setbacks, such as when the state Shorelines Hearing Board invalidated two necessary permits, ruling that officials from Cowlitz County and the Port of Kalama failed to fully analyze the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions from the project.

Therein lies Washington’s moral and economic duty regarding large energy projects. We can’t save the world from climate change or even make a large impact by ourselves, but that doesn’t mean we should not try.

Methanol from the Kalama plant would be sent to China for use in making plastics; Chinese officials say this would reduce dependence on coal, which is used to generate a majority of that nation’s electricity. Would reducing worldwide coal consumption adhere to our state’s climate goals? Would methanol production here truly impact Chinese coal consumption? And should those concerns be weighed against the need for jobs in this region?

Those issues all should be considered, and the Kalama project again points out the need for a robust permitting process. As Clark County residents have learned, Washington has a thorough and lengthy system for vetting energy projects.

The Kalama proposal should be of interest to Clark County residents. What happens in Kalama — be it air pollution, water pollution, or even job growth — does not stay in Kalama; it has a residual effect on Vancouver 30 miles to the south. By the same token, what happens here can have a global impact.T