The Northwest is currently deciding whether to allow the Chinese government to build three export-oriented refineries in our region—specifically at Kalama and Tacoma, Washington, and near Clatskanie, Oregon. They would more than triple total US methanol production in order to fuel plastics manufacturing abroad. In our first installment on the subject, Sightline explored the fundamentals of these planned projects. Here, we will examine some key features of the industry.
What is methanol?
Methanol (CH3OH) is a simple alcohol—a light, colorless, and flammable liquid at room temperature. Although methanol is present in the environment in small amounts, we also synthesize it for industrial purposes from fossil fuels (oil, coal, and natural gas) or biomass (wood and plant material). We use methanol for transportation fuel (biodiesel), portable fuel cells, wastewater treatment, and to manufacture common products like formaldehyde, acetic acid, plastics, paints, resins, and insulations.
What happens at a methanol refinery?
To understand the methanol projects proposed for Oregon and Washington, you’ll have to endure a little chemistry lesson. (It won’t hurt much.)
If built, the Northwest refineries would receive natural gas by pipeline and “desulfurize” it using zinc oxide to absorb sulfur from the gas stream. Then, in a process called steam methane reforming, a nickel-based catalyst reforms the natural gas into a “synthesis gas” made up of hydrogen (H2), carbon monoxide (CO), and carbon dioxide (CO2). Next, a heat-based catalytic process, typically using copper and zinc in a reforming furnace, converts the synthesis gas to crude methanol. (Each of these processes can be carried out in other ways, too.) Finally, the crude methanol is distilled and purified into manufacturing-grade methanol.
Methanol refining requires prodigious amounts of energy. Just powering a refinery’s operations would require burning about one-third of the natural gas that’s piped into the facility. The plants would each have a power load of 200 megawatts of electricity, use about 2,500 gallons of water per minute, and produce a stew of waste that includes heavy metals, volatile organic compounds, and various air pollutants.
“Just powering a refinery would require burning 1/3 of the natural gas that’s piped into it.”
The proposed Northwest facilities would load their finished methanol product onto Panamax-sized ships bound for Dalian, China. In Dalian, the methanol would be transferred to yet-to-be-built methanol storage facilities to be used in still more yet-to-be-built methanol-to-olefin (MTO) units that would, as their name suggests, use chemical processes to turn methanol to “olefins.”
Olefins (CnH2n) are a group of particularly reactive hydrocarbons that are mostly used to make plastics. They are rare in nature but can be artificially manufactured in large quantities. Two of the most widely used olefins are ethylene and propylene.
Why produce in the Northwest?
The Chinese government is behind the three Northwest methanol proposals, and the timing is no coincidence. Industry analysts predict an unprecedented increase in global methanol production owing to a fairly new refining technology. This technology would allow Chinese producers to make olefins using methanol derived from cheap coal or natural gas instead of using the more costly petroleum-based feedstock naphtha.
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China has abundant supplies of cheap domestic coal, yet because most of it is in a remote western part of the country, it works out that importing methanol by sea is cheaper than moving coal by land to methanol refineries. (China’s recent limitations on coal production and consumption further incentivize Chinese industrial interests to import US methanol.) Meanwhile, China is unlikely to produce its own methanol from natural gas because natural gas costs about four times as much as it does in the United States—and the cost of natural gas is the main variable in making methanol.
In short, the US is set to become a “methanol surrogate” for China because it can supply its own refineries with cheap, fracked shale gas instead.
How will the Chinese use US methanol?
Industry analysts have also projected global methanol consumption to nearly double between 2013 and 2023. In China, which is home to more than half of global methanol production capacity, methanol consumption is projected to jump from 30 million metric tons per year (mmta) in 2013 to more than 67 mmta by 2023. RnR Market Research reported that much of this demand is driven by a plan to implement a mandatory 15 percent methanol blend with gasoline, as well as economic growth-driven increases in using methanol to make paints, plastics, adhesives, and solvents.
Cause for caution
The increases forecasted in global demand for methanol, coupled with the United States’ abundance of cheap natural gas, make entering the methanol industry seem enticing, and it would appear that the Northwest is poised to become a hub for the global methanol trade. But production is booming in another region as well. The vast majority of new methanol projects are located in the Gulf Coast, and a major Shanghai-based energy company recently noted that the atmosphere on the Gulf Coast is “nothing short of a gold rush.”
A gold rush is the sort of boosterish terminology Northwest communities have heard before. In 2012, when coal export plans were first appearing, project backers hyped the projects with talk of a “coal supercycle” and insatiable Asian demand for thermal coal. Those predictions evaporated a few years later.
As China’s economy cools, it remains to be seen whether the huge profits that analysts envision for Northwest methanol exports are sustainable. In fact, the world methanol market has been oversupplied as recently as 2008, when many plants were just starting up. While the new proposed refineries would meet a near-term demand for cheap methanol in China, it remains to be seen what the Pacific Northwest will have gained after the gold rush fever abates.
Tarika Powell contributed to this article.
Yet another reason to recycle more and recycle better.
Not only is an explosion a serious consideration but so is earthquake, volcano and acts of terrorism on this site. Why not just paint a big white X on Tacoma? They wouldn’t even need a bomb….Just drop a plane on the site and we will all be blown to kingdom come.
We must preserve our earth for generations to come and this project is subversive, harmful and detrimental to all cities surrounding Tacoma.
Fascinating. Thanks, Sightline! Almost a way to circumvent the oil export ban. Wonder what will happen to gas & water costs locally (where refineries are being built), as well as where all that waste water will end up.
Hi, Phil. The wastewater question is one that each community should be asking. A fact sheet on the proposed Port Westward facility at Port of St. Helens indicates that it will discharge about 200 gallons of wastewater per minute. It states that the port “can accept our wastewater and discharge it through its existing wastewater management system with proper mitigation as required” under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit.
Tac Town 253
my home has already been threw this toxic crap with the Asarco plant there is already warning about the arsnic and lead in our dirt. add more toxic crap to the air, dirt and water that our kids play in is not acceptable. who do you work for Tarika? the artical just said the plant would use 2500gal a min. what about the future for our children, does any one care about quality of life more than money?
I did not see mentioned in this article the great risk of explosion. The flash point of methanol is 52-54 degrees Fahrenheit. Isn’t methanol the reason for the majority of the ethanol refineries that were the rage a few years ago.
Sorry I meant to say ethanol refinery explosions
I don’t think that methanol is used in any amount for biodiesel which requires fats or oil for production and is used mainly as a diesel diluent or surrogate. Methanol is used as a diluent in gasoline.A common misconception.
Eric de Place
In biodiesel production, methanol is reacted with lipids. See here for one of many descriptions: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biodiesel_production and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biodiesel
Methanol (CH3OH) and ethanol (C2H5OH) are two different things. Methanol is poisonous with as little as 50 millilitres (about two ounces), while ethanol is sold for public consumption.
Methanol is more explosive than ethanol, but to my knowledge, there have been no major methanol refinery explosions.
I see this whole thing as yet another way to exploit cheap North American natgas. It looks like LNG is running into trouble; converting the natgas to methanol first makes sense from a shipping and storage point-of-view, whether or not it makes sense from an ecological point-of-view.
In a sustainable world, smallish amounts of methanol could be produced from “producer gas” from destructive pyrolization of wood. It could then be used for limited production of the most important plastics. But making it out of natgas so we can have more imported cheap plastic crap from China is the sort of madness that destroys civilizations!
You are right that it is ethanol that is used in large quantities in our gasoline. The point that I was really trying to make is that it is not used in biodiesel.Thanks for the correction. I got my alcohols mixed up which can be a costly mistake for your body.The substrates for biodiesel are fats.
Methanol, and sometimes ethanol, is a very common ingredient of Transesterification.
That is the chemical process of turning those fats into FAME (Fatty-Acid Methyl-Ester) aka Biodiesel.
The amount of those alcohols used to make the biodiesel is a relatively small amount, but quite critical. A very rough figure would be 80K gallons of methanol to make 1Million gallons of biodiesel.
Geismar, Louisiana at the Williams Olefin Plant. 70 injured, 2 dead. June 13, 2013
Diane L. Dick
Thank you Eric and Sightline for bringing to focus this new fossil fuel assault on our environment and communities, much of it in the name of “clean fuels,” which it most definitely is not. The leakage alone of methane from the Williams NW natural gas pipeline from natural gas from the fracked Canadian shale beds as feedstock to the Kalama methanol plant, at minimum, is estimated to be over 1 billion cubic feet per year. This is the equivalent of about 500,000 metric tons of CO2e. And that’s just leakage from the pipeline for this one methanol plant.
The 200 MW electric load requirement you state for one plant is staggering. This is about one third the peak load requirement currently for all of Cowlitz PUD, which is the public utility that would supply the Kalama plant. I was told by the Kalama plant president that the reason they would not be using natural gas to provide their own energy needs was that it would be too expensive for the necessary pollution controls.
We are being used by the Chinese and the fossil fuel producers, but at what cost?
Matt the Engineer
Amazing. Back when I lived in Vallejo, CA, there were plans to build a liquefied natural gas (LNG) import facility to Mare Island. Natural gas would be produced in the middle east, liquefied (at great energy cost), shipped in Panamax-sized LNG ships, then converted back to a gas and added to California’s natural gas lines.
We fought it because of the danger involved – there were studies that showed a leak could cause a cloud of natural gas at flammable concentrations to reach downtown Vallejo.
Now, because of fracking they’re proposing to do more or less the same thing in reverse? Question: you didn’t mention how this methane will be transported. I assume it will be liquefied?
Eric de Place
Matt, quick clarification: It’s not methane (the dominant component of natural gas) but rather methanol. It is stored and transported as a bulk liquid in much the same way as crude oil.
Matt the Engineer
Fill in the blank.
We understand that we need to stop coal exports and push the world toward renewables and conservation.
We also understand we need to stop the methanol plants and push the world toward ____?____ and conservation?
At Naomi Klein’s book signing event 11 months ago in Beaverton, she hid her disposable water bottle from the cameras.
It ain’t easy being green, but one great way to start is to stop taking long distance pleasure trips.
I can name 4 climate staff members who think nothing of taking long distance pleasure trips by plane. It is difficult to be hopeful when even enlightened people do that.
It is easier to educate strangers than friends.
Good point. There is a definite need for plastics, and it sounds like methanol is the least-costly feedstock for plastic. If we consider the planet’s atmosphere & ocean as a whole, then it makes more sense to produce oil, gas, and methanol in the United States, where environmental regulations are strictest (compared to China & Africa) and where critical thinking (with regard to environmental impact) carries the most weight.
Diane L. Dick
Methanol should be thought of as a fuel. Describing it as a plastics feedstock is another way for fossil fuel exporters to avoid a political and economic argument about exporting domestic fuel resources. China would like to have it because the communities that mine/drill, transport, and refine the product will bear the environmental cost to produce it. Globally we will all still bear the GHG cost. Methanol is commonly used in racing cars. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methanol_fuel
The natural gas if truly in glut status should be used to substitute and retire coal fired electricity like Colstrip in Montana which supplies Puget Sound with electricity and the Centralia coal fired plant. It could also substitute for hydropower in the low water years in the Pacific Northwest and in case of dam removal for salmon restoration.
A couple of thoughts…
The shale gas “revolution” is somewhat an illusion as the cost of production exceeds the revenue generated. A significant number of tight gas players have gone bankrupt or shortly will go bankrupt. In many cases, the wells that are drilled are being done to obtain the natural gas liquids (“wet” gas), such as propane and butane, which count as US oil production. With the collapse of oil prices, even these wells are no longer profitable.
The lifespan of a tight gas well is about 3-years. So to maintain production one has to essentially “run in place” with constant re-drilling and exploration. The illusion here is based upon really cheap credit permitting speculation.
If shale-gas revolution is an illusion, it is likely that these infrastructure projects will prove to be poor allocations of capital in the long run and would actually hurt Washington State competitiveness.
Final comment, it seems unreasonable for the Cowlitz PUD to carry the investment cost/risk to provide power for this project. Cowlitz PUD would likely install natural gas turbine equipment to meet this demand. It would seem that rather than the public take on this risk that the investors of the project take it on instead. The Chinese investors can just as easily install a gas turbine as they would already be piping the natural gas to their facility.
This seems to be another instance of publicizing the risk and privatizing the profits.
1. When you say ‘2500 gallons of water per minute’, don’t you REALLY mean ‘2500 gallons of TREATED water’? It’s an important distinction.
2. Why (how?) is natural gas 4 times more expensive if China were to use its own natural gas? Could you walk us through the economics there?
Thanks for your stellar work!
Do any one of you read this article and find yourself reminded of the massive fuel refinery explosion in Tianjin not so long ago? Because that’s one of the first things to cross my mind when I read this, right along with the thought of it happening here in the Northwest.
There’s any number of reasons not to allow these refineries to be built, I really can’t think of ONE good reason why they should be built.
Given the Pacific Northwest’s longstanding history of championing environmental safety and awareness, I’m not incredibly worried about this being shot down in flames, but just to be safe, we should fight against this like we mean it.
Honestly, I’m not a fan of doing China any favors–let them figure out their own energy problems. I think we have enough to worry about here at home already without them adding to it all.
And just a reminder of how that situation in Tianjin looked:
China Explosion Blast
Why would any US City even consider sacrificing its ecology and citizens’ safety for another country’s profit? What is it going to take before our elected officials stop putting money before human lives and the environment? Let’s not forget China’s abhorrent human rights record & current aggression in the South China Sea. The US should be boycotting and sanctioning China. Not offering up our resources to a brutal communist dictatorship that enslaves & terrorizes its own people. Governor Inslee supports this idea? Does the Governor even read or watch the news? Disgusting.
An enormous effort in Washington currently goes into wringing out every source of zinc leaching into our industrial storm water because very small concentrations disorient salmon. Why in the world would we turn around and site a refinery that will be storing and transporting huge amounts of zinc sulfide waste and zinc catalyst adjacent to the Hylebos and Commencement Bay?
It is called “Global Trade”….we do it with many countries. With China/Asia we send them the “upgraded” version of one of our natural resources similar to what we do with lumber etc. In return, they send us their Rare Earth metals used to power our electronics industry and manufactured products derived from the low cost labor of their work force. In reality, the balance is tipped much strongly with trade coming from there to here. As such, they have a vested interest in seeing us be successful not only because we purchase a great deal of their products but also, they are major holders of US debt.