Jefferson County sits on the Thin Green Line — the British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon region lying between fracked gas and tar sands/shale oil sources and their markets. These fossil …
Jefferson County sits on the Thin Green Line — the British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon region lying between fracked gas and tar sands/shale oil sources and their markets. These fossil fuels are transported by pipelines and trains to Pacific Northwest coastlines and riverbanks for processing and loading on to ships traveling to Asia and elsewhere.
The proposed Northwest Innovation Works (NWIW, Chinese-government supported) Kalama methanol refinery is a case in point. This facility would be one of the world’s largest fracked gas-to-methanol refineries. Emissions from its manufacturing process alone would emit approximately 1 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually.
A small town on I-5, Kalama sits on ancestral lands of the Cowlitz and Chinook Peoples, on the Columbia River 72 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Fracked gas from Montney Shale in British Columbia/Alberta would be delivered to Kalama via a new, 24-inch, 3.1-mile extension off the existing Williams Northwest Pipeline. Methane isolated from the fracked gas would be converted to liquid methanol through a process requiring up to 3,600 gallons of water/minute. The 242-foot stack’s water vapor flume would be up to 3 miles long.
The methanol, 72 million gallons, would be stored on the earthquake-vulnerable banks of the Columbia River. Transfer to and transport on ships destined for China pose environmental risks, as well.
All of the methanol produced at Kalama — a refinery partially constructed at taxpayers’ expense in exchange for relatively few American and Chinese jobs (1,000 during construction, 200 during operation) and future tax revenue — will be shipped to China. Per the most recent Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, the majority is expected to be used for plastics manufacturing, with a lesser, nonspecific amount used for fuel.
The project’s second Supplemental Environment Impact Statement (Washington State Department of Ecology) presents displacement of coal as justification for methanol refinery approval: use of methanol instead of coal as plastic feedstock in China is better for the global environment. The environmental organization Sightline Institute asserts this theory assumes that no cleaner energy alternatives are or will become available, and that neither the United States nor China will enact new regulations to curtail greenhouse gas emissions.
The Port of Kalama 2015 Comprehensive Plan describes the refinery as a gateway to even more methanol development: “If the current project proves successful, Kalama would be in a strong position for expansion or additional methanol projects.”
Alyssa Macy, CEO of Washington Environmental Council and Washington Conservation Voters, noted, “Thousands of Washingtonians are speaking up against this dangerous project because we know that we simply cannot build a clean energy future by investing in dirty energy.”
The project continues to be challenged during its permitting process, such as on Nov. 21 when a federal court overturned permits for its Export Terminal, requiring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to prepare a full environmental impact statement. The next step is Washington State Department of Ecology’s decision upon the site’s Shoreline Condition Use Permit. NWIW is expected to counter if the permit is denied.
In 2016, public resistance stopped NWIW’s planned methanol refinery in Tacoma. Learn more about the Kalama refinery and how to get involved at websites such as columbiariverkeeper.org, wecprotects.org, and ecology.wa.gov.
(Polly Lyle is a retired pharmaceutical research scientist and climate activist who has lived in Port Townsend for 14 years, and is a member of the Local 20/20 Climate Outreach group.)