If you live in Tacoma, you’ve probably heard something about the methanol plant being proposed for the Port of Tacoma. There have been recent meetings about the topic. The Tacoma City Council has been notably quiet about the issue. (Though it is worth noting that the idea for this 5 Question Friday came from a Tacoma City Councilperson who contacted me.) The neighboring Federal Way City Council just last night held an emergency session to condemn the plan.
Over the last few weeks, I have contacted many people about this issue. And for this week’s 5 Question Friday I contacted the Port of Tacoma (the location where the plant may be built), NW Innovation Works (the company building the plant), and Redline Tacoma (a grassroots activist group against the plant). I asked them each the same five questions. The idea here is to get different perspectives on the same topic from people closer to this project than I am.
Here we go:
1.What is the basic plan at this time for the proposed methanol plant?
Port of Tacoma: I’ll defer to Northwest Innovation Works on its plans for the proposed facility.
NW Innovation Works: NW Innovation Works proposes to construct a two-phased, $3.4 billion gas-to-methanol plant at the Port of Tacoma. Methanol produced at this facility will be exported to Asia, where companies will convert it to olefins, which are the building blocks of products we use every day like medical supplies; safety and industrial equipment; consumer electronics like smartphones, televisions and computers; and clothing. The plant will include up to four methanol production lines, each with a production capacity of 5,000 metric tons per day, for a total of 20,000 metric tons per day. At the peak of construction, the project will create up to 1,000 jobs. Once operational, the facility will employ approximately 260 full-time jobs.
The plant will utilize ultra-low emissions (ULE) reforming technology, which will emit substantially lower greenhouse gas and other air pollutants compared to conventional technologies for reforming natural gas to methanol.
The facility is planned for the former Kaiser property, returning the site to productive use for industrial manufacturing that generates jobs and local revenue. Nearby facilities include Schnitzer Steel, Targa Sound Terminals, and Port of Tacoma breakbulk- and containerized cargo facilities. The Port of Tacoma approved a lease agreement with NW Innovation Works in May 2014, allowing the permitting processes with the appropriate regulatory agencies to begin.
Redline Tacoma: NWIW Tacoma LLC proposed the largest methanol refinery in the world for the heart of our city. NWIW LLC never built anything, anywhere. The refinery is proposed to consume 14.4 million gallons of fresh drinking water per day, 450 MW electricity and 524 million cubic feet of fracked gas per day. It would pump about 1.4 million gallons polluted waste water each day into the City of Tacoma water treatment facility and it would release toxins such as sulfur dioxide, benzene and formaldehyde. The sole purpose for the refinery would be to feed a plastics manufacturing facility in the city of Dalian, China, who is also a financial backer of the project.
2. What aspect of this project do you feel is most misunderstood by the public?
Port of Tacoma: When the studies are complete, the data may well show the facility has a significant net environmental benefit. Facts about a proposed development are fleshed out during the environmental review process, but, in this case, misinformation without any basis in fact has been allowed to overshadow data and rational conversation. Here are some of the reasons the Port of Tacoma considered this proposal a good fit for the former Kaiser Aluminum smelter site.
- Environmental benefits: Many of the products we use every day—cell phones, eyeglasses and contact lenses, exercise clothing and gear, medical devices, carpeting, toys, camping gear, the plastic components in buses, trains, airplanes and other common items—have traditionally been made with coal and oil. Replacing coal and oil with methanol, a clean, biodegradable manufacturing feedstock, would improve global air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
- Environmental regulation: I have heard some people express concerns that the facility would pollute our air, water and land. Washington state has among the most stringent regulations in the nation. A manufacturing facility that cannot meet or exceed these hundreds of regulations could not be built. The contamination the Port removed from the property after purchasing it from Kaiser occurred before these regulations existed.
- Proven commodity: Methanol facilities have operated safely all over the world for decades. The Methanol Institute, an industry association, reports there are more than 90 facilities all over the world, and each day more than 80,000 metric tons of methanol is shipped from one continent to another. More information about methanol facilities and uses is available on the Methanol Institute’s website: http://www.methanol.org/Methanol-Basics/The-Methanol-Industry.aspx.
- Environmental review process: Many people professed shock that they hadn’t heard of the proposal until now, when, in fact, the environmental review process is the first step in examining the feasibility of a development. The steps generally are environmental review (scope, draft EIS, final EIS) and permit applications—all of which have public comment periods—before any construction can begin. A typical comment period is 30 days with one public hearing. This process is more than twice the standard.
NW Innovation Works: The NW Innovation Works Tacoma facility offers a more environmentally responsible way to produce the items we all use every day. By using natural gas instead of coal, emissions are reduced 70 percent. NWIW is taking an even bigger step by using ultra-low emission technology, which result in an even greater (up to 75 percent more) reduction in emissions compared to coal.
Methanol is water-soluble, bio-degradable, and non-carcinogenic. You can buy methanol at your grocery store, gas station, hardware store and even on Amazon.com. The methanol produced at the Tacoma facility will not be used just for cheap plastic products, but instead for several important products we use every day, like insulin pumps, hearing aids, smartphones, eyeglasses, contact lenses, clothing, industrial equipment and more.
Redline Tacoma: The Pacific Northwest and in particular the Puget Sound region is becoming a major through way for massive fossil fuel exports. Tacoma already has the distinction of being traversed with the most oil trains, 80,000 barrels a day and climbing, rattling away on underinsured, publicly owned Tacoma Rail. Also proposed for the port of Tacoma is a Bellevue-based, Australia owned PugetSoundEnergy LLC Liquefied Natural Gas export facility. This LNG tank would be 18 stories tall and hold 8 million gallons of liquid fracked gas held at MINIS 260 degrees. LNG is very dangerous and international standards say it can only be built 3 miles away from civilians. We are not just dealing with methanol, but with becoming the toxic petrochemical kitchen for exporting our natural resources at an unprecedented scale.
3. Residential use of water in Tacoma is 5.7 million gallons a year. The new plant requires 3.8 million gallons a year. We had a drought last summer where we were all told to conserve 10% of our water. If similar conditions should occur in the future, what assurances do we have that residential use of water will have the priority?
Port of Tacoma: I’ll defer to Northwest Innovation Works and/or Tacoma Public Utilities on the proposed facility’s water use and availability and sources of water.
NW Innovation Works: Tacoma Water has 242 million gallons available on a daily basis and an additional 183 million gallons in storage, according to the Tacoma Public Utilities website (http://www.mytpu.org/tacomawater/water-source/supply-storage.htm).
And according to data available from the TPU’s publicly available 2014 Financial Statement, this is the breakdown of water use on an annual and daily basis:
Data from 2014 Financial Statements
|Customer class||Billion gal/year||Million gal/day|
|All other, Commercial and Industrial||3.17||8.7|
NWIW will employ innovative design features that allow for greater volumes of water to be reused throughout the process. The majority of the water at the plant will be used for cooling and will be released back into the atmosphere as water vapor, with small percentages consumed in the methanol production process.
We will work with the Port of Tacoma and Tacoma Public Utilities to make sure we are responsible during regular and potentially changing conditions.
Redline Tacoma: There are no assurances at this point. Who will get the water? Hospitals, schools, Metro Parks, breweries, hotels, farmers, salmon, vegetables, paper industry, export facilities or the already fastest water bottling plant in the world Niagara Bottling? Niagara’s water use went up drastically during the drought, see below: .
4. What infrastructure will be in place to handle the practical and financial consequences if something goes wrong at the plant and there’s an explosion or other dangerous incident?
Port of Tacoma: Here’s what we know so far. A new fire station is scheduled to open in the Tideflats area as a result of Puget Sound Energy’s planned liquefied natural gas facility. An Intelligent Transportation System, which will help guide traffic through the industrial area, is also planned for the Tideflats. The Environmental Impact Statement will determine what other enhancements might be required.
NW Innovation Works: We absolutely understand that safety is a community concern, and it’s one shared by the project team. Safety is always our first priority. Methanol is safely produced, manufactured, stored and transported within the United States and internationally. NWIW will maintain this strong safety record and is committed to working with stakeholders and community members to build a facility that meets or exceeds applicable safety standards.
We are working with appropriate emergency responders and authorities to plan state-of-the art safety systems as we plan our system design. We will develop emergency preparedness and response plans for local and state approval to address potential spills, fire and security at each site. In addition, each facility will have a dedicated and trained on-site fire brigade and equipment to support emergency response.
Redline Tacoma: NWIW Tacoma LLC is a limited liability corporation. LLC’s take the profits and pay it out to investors. The money is gone. Should something go wrong, they simply declare bankruptcy and Tacoma and the Port will have to deal with it. Should the accident be bad enough we can call FEMA. NWIW Tacoma LLC is not just one corporations, it is made up of several LLC’s, or shell companies. They can re-incorporate every year and can have a tax shelter somewhere in a tax-free heaven. Tacoma in its history always let industry pollute and when they made enough profit, they pull out and leave the toxic mess for Tacoma to clean up and live with it.
5. Do you see the methanol plant as a good thing for the future of the city and port of Tacoma and why?
Port of Tacoma: Tacoma has the opportunity to reduce global greenhouse gases to address climate change by providing cleaner alternatives to the coal and oil currently used to produce consumer goods we use every day. It’s important for us to fully understand the potential impacts of any development. I hope people will keep an open mind as we gather all the facts because we have an opportunity be a global climate leader, helping build a bridge to a cleaner future while creating valuable jobs for our community.
If the environmental review demonstrates the proposal’s feasibility, this could be a positive transformational project that provides global environmental benefits, hundreds of family-wage jobs and sizable city and school tax revenues.
NW Innovation Works: Tacoma has a proud history of pioneering innovation and being at the forefront of embracing the opportunities of our ever changing world. With the NWIW proposal, we have the chance to build on that foundation and create a better future not just for ourselves, but for everyone who is concerned about climate change.
NWIW is proposing to pioneer a technology that that can transform how methanol is produced, removing coal from the equation and providing the world a cleaner way to manufacture goods essential to our daily lives.
This facility provides a way for Tacoma to be part of the global fight to reduce climate change. In addition, the project represents a $3.4 billion investment in the local economy that will create approximately 1,000 jobs during construction and 260 full-time jobs during operation of the facility.
Redline Tacoma: Turning our publicly owned natural resources into a toxic chemical for export and plastic manufacturing is stunningly short sighted.
I want to thank the representatives at the Port of Tacoma, NW Innovation Works, and Redline Tacoma for taking time out of their schedules to answer these questions.
You can find further information about the Port of Tacoma on their website at http://portoftacoma.com
You can find further information about NW Innovation Works at http://nwinnovationworks.com/
You can find further information about Redline Tacoma at http://redlinetacoma.org/
What are your thoughts on the methanol plant? Feel free to comment. All comments are moderated by me, but I’ll be fairly open to whatever you want to post as long as it’s substantive.
– Jack Cameron