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Political considerations entwined in disputes over Kalama Methanol plant

State Senator Dean Takko’s statement was unequivocal:

With this report, the Department of Ecology has proven once again that the Kalama Methanol facility will result in a net global benefit by reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with producing the materials and products we all use every day. Beyond the global benefits, the department will ensure the impacts of the plant are thoroughly measured and effectively mitigated. That’s a win for jobs and a win for our responsible role in combating the climate crisis.”

This statement followed the September 2nd release of the Department of Ecology’s draft Second Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on a proposed $2 billion methanol plant on the Columbia River in Kalama.

The $2 billion facility proposed by the Chinese government-owned methanol producer, Northwest Innovation Works (NWIW), would be built on land leased by the Port of Kalama.

The plant would turn Canadian fracked natural gas into methanol and export it to China to make plastics and other materials. Included in the project is a 3-mile pipeline for transporting natural gas.

Since its inception, the project has drawn the ire of environmentalists due to the large quantity of fracked gas the plant would demand. An early environmental impact statement found that the project would emit 1.24 million metric tons of greenhouse gases annually, though some environmentalists argued that emissions would be even larger depending on how much of the production process is considered.

The release of Ecology’s Impact Statement earlier this month ushered in a new round of commentary between environmentalists and supporters of the project, Sen. Takko included.

According to Ecology’s latest report, the Kalama facility will result in a global net reduction of over six million metric tonnes of Greenhouse Gas emissions annually. That figure is equal to eliminating about double the number of emissions that the entire city of Seattle emits annually. NWIW said it will mitigate for 100% of its in-state emissions by supporting a range of carbon reduction projects.

Supporters of the plant argue that ensuring it is built in the United States, and subject to regulations therein, would displace dirtier forms of methanol production in other markets like China, Iran, or Russia. Those who object to the plant for environmental reasons say this “displacement theory” argument is based on the false belief that economic modeling can accurately predict global fuel markets and other intractable trends.

Entwined in the environmental policy debate is a set of competing political interests, those with knowledge of disputes over the project say.

Apart from being the source of a routine kerfuffle between environmentalists and a methanol producer, the Kalama plant is regarded by some as a key selling point for 19th LD voters retaining incumbent Democrats Takko and Rep. Brian Blake.

Takko and Blake both finished behind the Republican vote totals in last month’s primary. Formerly a Democratic stronghold, Cowlitz County was won by Donald Trump in 2016, making him the first Republican to win since President Reagan in 1980.

In a divided primary, Republican gubernatorial nominee Loren Culp beat Gov. Inslee in four of five counties touching the 19th district.

The 19th’s other House member, Republican Rep. Jim Walsh, won the primary comfortably and looks poised for a much easier re-election effort than his Democratic counterparts.

Takko and Blake will be tasked with conveying to voters that representatives with a seat at the majority party table can do more to get the plant built; a plant that could create hundreds of jobs in an area where unemployment has long lagged behind the state average, one person with extensive knowledge of disputes over the project told the Wire.

For the 19th LD’s Democratic incumbents, assuaging the concerns of voters who would like to see the plant built means taking a stance oppositional to that of the Democratic governor, who has made courting environmentalists a signature priority.

After initially saying the plant would would reduce greenhouse gasses and produce cleaner energy, Inslee reversed his stance on the Kalama plant and a liquefied natural gas plant in Tacoma in May of 2019, shortly after launching his climate change centered presidential campaign.

We want to be consistent to that spirit of progress. Therefore, I cannot in good conscience support continued construction of a liquefied natural gas plant in Tacoma or a methanol production facility in Kalama,” Inslee said after signing a bill banning fracking for oil and natural gas in Washington State.

Months later, in November of 2019, Ecology declared an environmental impact report submitted by Cowlitz County and the Port of Kalama to be insufficient, and announced that the department would conduct a new study of the plant’s greenhouse gas emissions. The move held up a permit required for commencing the project, adding more time to an environmental review that had already been underway for five years.

Takko was displeased.

The department’s decision is a cowardly swipe at our ambition to bring prosperity back to Southwest Washington,” Takko wrote in a letter to Inslee. “Beleaguering this project despite its overwhelming practical and environmental benefits sends a clear message that the needs of the people of Southwest Washington are not a concern for your administration,” he said.

Blake has also made his support for the plant clear and has expressed frustration with the dawdling environmental review process.

Fast-forward to the release of Ecology’s own environmental impact statement earlier this month, and Takko did not hesitate to mention his public disagreement with Inslee over the plant.

When late last year the Ecology Department announced further delays in its environmental review, I challenged Governor Inslee and his administration to do better. I am proud of the bipartisan efforts of lawmakers to hold the administration accountable to an independent analysis and complete its review at deliberate speed.”

In a phone call with the Wire this week, Takko re-stated his belief the plant would be beneficial on all fronts.

With the release of Ecology’s report, I think it is clear [the plant] has a positive net effect on carbon, jobs, and tax revenue…this is more or less a $2 billion project with a 1 or 2 percent property tax rate against that.”

Takko’s re-election campaign has not received Inslee’s endorsement, though Takko said he would take an endorsement from anyone, regardless of political disagreements.

Nevertheless, some believe that endorsement is unlikely to arrive given the Governor’s recent endorsement of Democratic Sen. Mark Mullet’s progressive challenger in the 5th LD.

Inslee wading into the 5th LD race – making the rare move of endorsing a Democratic incumbent’s challenger – might not be unrelated to the Governor’s supposed position as a top contender for a Biden cabinet position, the person with knowledge of the Kalama disputes who spoke to the Wire speculated.

Among the factors Inslee listed as driving his decision to endorse Mullet’s challenger, Ingrid Anderson, was that Anderson will be helpful in passing his clean energy agenda.

I’ve been clear about the urgent need to adopt cleaner fuels and build a clean energy economy here in Washington State. Ingrid shares this sense of urgency, as a matter of public health and environmental protection. We need her voice – and her vote – to take overdue action to protect our health and climate,” said Inslee.

In July, Inslee was recommended for several cabinet positions by a top progressive think tank, largely due to his environmental bona fides.

Inslee, who is running for a third term as governor, has said publicly that he is not interested in a cabinet position.

Mullet, who recently announced that he will not vote for Inslee in November, is of the belief that Inslee endorsed against him due to his calls for a special session, which the Governor currently opposes.

Anderson finished 491 votes ahead of Mullet in the August primary. Since then, Mullet has appeared on several conservative talk radio shows. Speaking to KVI’s John Carlson about his primary loss, Mullet said “If you’re down by 490 votes and 8,500 Republicans chose to leave the Senate race blank that explains the math really quickly…”

While 5th LD voters advanced two Democrats to the general election, the 19th is not a zero sum proposition for the House and Senate Democratic Caucuses. A loss by either Takko or Blake would mean a net-decrease in seats for Democrats.

Given that Republicans seem unlikely to capture a majority in either chamber this election cycle, some believe Takko’s top political priority should be convincing voters that having a Democratic senator advocating for the plant would be advantageous.

In any case, Takko isn’t leaving his position on the plant up for interpretation.

If the permit is never given and they don’t get the plant built, it just sends one hell of a message, and that message is, industry is not welcome here.”

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