A petrochemical company wants to build a huge factory on the banks of the Columbia River. If built, the proposed Kalama methanol plant would use staggering quantities of fracked gas, fresh water, and electricity to produce methanol for export to China. Once there, the methanol would be converted into plastic or blended with other fossil fuels to power vehicles. But in a world already choking on plastic pollution and careening dangerously toward climate wreckage, it is hard to see how the scheme makes any sense.
So why do some people claim the project would reduce greenhouse gas emissions?
It’s because they assume a catastrophic climate failure.
The Kalama methanol company’s cheerleaders are touting benefits that are only relative to a nightmarish reference point: that states and nations fail to live up to their climate agreements. They assume failure of the Paris Climate Accords, failure of China to fulfill (or even come close to) its pledge to be carbon neutral by 2060, and, along with it, unchecked growth of fossil fuels for transportation and cheap plastic. Then, relative to that catastrophic failure, they selectively point to a portion of the recently-released Second Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement, which uses dubious logic to show that the Kalama methanol would make things slightly better.
It is the moral equivalent of urging someone to jump off a slightly shorter skyscraper.
To understand just how wrong the project backers are, let’s start with what everyone can agree on: by itself, the Kalama methanol project would be a first-order polluter. The SSEIS shows clearly that the facility would generate around 4.6 million tons of carbon dioxide pollution each year, equivalent to around 5 percent of the state’s total climate emissions. (The analysis also shows it is possible the facility’s all-in carbon pollution could be more than double that.) This much is clearly established and irrefutable.
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That’s where the analysis should end, which would provide the state of Washington ample reason to deny permits for the project. Instead, the SSEIS wanders into a thicket of modeling exercises in a misguided and speculative attempt to forecast the next 40 years of human development. Curiously, the only forecasts included in the SSEIS are those that cast the project in better light.
The analysis systematically ignores or downplays—sometimes in contradictory ways—the project’s likely impacts on our climate. Here are a few of the major problems with the SSEIS:
- It relies on hypothetical future displacement of coal. On the basis of bullish industry forecasts, the analysis assumes endless growth in the demand for gas-derived methanol and other fossil fuels. Then—based on a suite of unrealistic assumptions about the future of Chinese manufacturing, trade and environmental policy, technological development, and global commodity markets—the SSEIS concludes that Kalama’s methanol would prevent coal-based competitors from producing more methanol in the future. This is the source of the alleged greenhouse gas “reductions”: not actually reducing emissions in any practical sense or even pushing existing coal projects offline, but rather hypothetically decreasing production from coal-to-methanol facilities at some point in the future. It is a dubious proposition at best.
- It ignores methanol’s displacement of clean energy. Although the analysis confidently asserts that Kalama’s new lost-cost methanol would displace future coal-based production it does not even attempt to explain how it might displace clean energy. It does not, for example, acknowledge that an influx of cheap gas-derived methanol for fuel tanks would delay the much-needed transition to clean electric vehicles. In fact, the entire premise of the Kalama project is establishing 40 more years of consumer demand for gas rather than moving away from fossil fuels. Counting the project’s displacement of clean energy would of course make it look deservedly worse.
- It ignores basic economics. The analysis fails to acknowledge that feeding more low-cost methanol into global markets would increase demand—and consumption—of methanol. Despite many pages of economics, the SSEIS assumes that changes in supply will have no effect on price, and therefore that methanol consumption is fixed.
- It ignores gas infrastructure lock-in. The Kalama project’s prodigious appetite for gas would almost certainly drive expansion of the Northwest gas pipeline system, which could not currently deliver enough fuel to feed the project. So the pipeline system would need to be expanded, which would likely set the stage for a proliferation of even more gas-based projects in the Northwest, everything from LNG to gas-fired power production to fertilizer manufacturing. Needless to say, building out more gas pipeline capacity and incenting new gas projects are inimical to responsible climate policy.
- It lowballs the impact of methane. In spite of a barrage of critical commentary on earlier drafts, the SSEIS fails to provide a scientifically serious accounting of methane. By using a “bottom-up” method for evaluating climate-warming methane leakage from the gas system, the analysis sidesteps the gas industry’s real problem: leakage is distributed throughout a system that is always aging and degrading. What’s worse, occasional (but entirely predictable) mishaps send horrifying amounts of methane into the atmosphere. In 2018, for example, a blowout at a single gas well in Ohio released more methane than is emitted by the entire nation of France in a year. The only way to accurately capture methane leakage like this is to use satellite-based “top-down” methodology, which the Kalama SSEIS dismisses. And adding insult to injury, the SSEIS also uses a global warming potential for methane about 30 percent lower than the figure recommended by the IPCC’s most recent report, which has the effect of further downplaying the Kalama project’s climate problem.
If, by 2060, Kalama remains a major exporter of fracked gas for cheap plastics and fuel, we will have failed to meaningfully address the climate crisis. We will be living in a catastrophe.
Days after the end of the worst wildfire smoke emergency in the history of urban Cascadia (wildfires worsened by climate change and which may have just inflicted life-long harm on every child in the region), the proponents of the Kalama methanol plant have the temerity to claim to the state of Washington that their project is good for the climate. It’s a lie.
Two things are clear in this, of all years: the world does not need more cheap plastic and it does not need more climate-killing fossil fuels. Kalama methanol would produce more of both. Washington Governor Jay Inslee and the Washington Department of Ecology should have all the evidence they need to deny the project.