Federal permits for Kalama methanol plant thrown out


The proposed $2 billion methanol refinery in Kalama has received another setback, as a federal judge ruled against key permits the project needed to move forward.

On Nov. 23 U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan ruled to vacate federal permits for the refinery, which would turn methane into methanol that project backers say will be used in plastics manufacturing. The ruling orders that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must conduct an environmental study on the project’s impacts, ruling that previous work done for permitting did not take into account the full greenhouse gas and infrastructure impacts the project would have.

“(T)he Corps thought it could skate by on a limited analysis of only a piece of the project,” Paulo Palugod, an attorney for Earthjustice representing the plaintiffs in the case, said in a statement following the ruling. “The Court said no.”

Earthjustice represented a number of groups against the project, including the Washington Environmental Council, Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, and Columbia Riverkeeper. A release from Columbia Riverkeeper explained the ruling struck down permits given under the federal Clean Water Act and Rivers and Harbors act needed to construct the export terminal for the project.

The Corps also ignored global climate pollution and regional methane pipeline construction, the release added.

Earthjustice’s release had a number of project opponents hailing the court decision while decrying the potential environmental impact the refinery would have.

“Washington simply cannot build a clean energy future by investing in dirty energy,” Alyssa Macy, CEO of Washington Environmental Council and Washington Conservation Voters, said in the release. “The urgency of our climate crisis demands the highest level of scrutiny based on science and impact — this project would have harmed the health of our planet for today and generations to come.”

Riverkeeper’s statement noted that currently the Washington State Department of Ecology and the Washington State Department of Transportation were considering whether to issue necessary state-level permits for the proposal.

“(R)ather than send it back to the drawing board, state and federal leaders should pull the plug now,” Jared Margolis, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in the release.

Project backers are not giving up, however. In their own release, Northwest Innovation Works (NWIW), the company proposing the project, noted the rulings and pointed to concurrent work at the state level that could benefit an increase in the Corps’ scope.

Kent Caputo, General Counsel for NWIW, said the company was currently reviewing the ruling in a statement released the day of the decision. He noted that Ecology was currently finalizing an additional environmental study for a state-level permit. 

Caputo said that study took “an unprecedented and expansive look” at greenhouse gas impacts, adding NWIW expected the final study would be a “rigorous, comprehensive, independent analysis,” which would help any of the Corps’ additional work on the permitting.

The refinery project has been in the works since 2014, receiving significant pushback in recent years, including a stance reversal from Gov. Jay Inslee, who initially supported the project, in 2019. Still, NWIW wasn’t deterred by the most recent setback.

“We’ve been at this now for almost seven years, and the ongoing support of the Kalama community and the labor community means so much to us,” NWIW Chief Development Officer Vee Godley said in the release. He said that the potential jobs and tax revenue from the project were merits worthy of continuing to pursue the refinery.

“To the extent more process is found to be appropriate and necessary to robustly inform regulators and the public, we will participate fully and see this process through,” Godley said in the release.