- Associated Press - Sunday, February 23, 2014

LONGVIEW, Wash. (AP) - Low natural gas prices are causing a boom in methanol manufacturing nationwide, and the Lower Columbia region should be quick to seize on the skilled jobs and tax revenue that the clean industry will bring.

That’s the message from officials on the Gulf Coast, which is the center of the boom and has a long history with methanol production. Residents here should be thrilled that a Chinese company wants to build two $1.8 billion methanol plants in Kalama and Clatskanie, they say.

“With a plant like that, there are a lot of high-paying jobs and jobs that require an education. If you’re in an area where children have left, or there’s nothing keeping them there, this is a big shot in the arm,” Jim Rich, president of the Greater Beaumont (Texas) Chamber of Commerce, said in a telephone interview last week.

Chinese-backed Northwest Innovation Works has announced that it wants to build twin plants at the Port of Kalama and Port Westward near Clatskanie. Each plant would cost $1.8 billion and employ 240 workers each. The company hopes to start operating the plants in 2018 and expects to employ 1,000 at each site during construction.

For a region still struggling with double-digit unemployment, the plants could be a huge economic boost. But what sort of opposition will they encounter, especially in a region that’s already in an environmental ruckus over coal and crude oil exports? Will methanol attract vigorous opposition, or will protests be tempered by the area’s longing for economic growth - and methanol’s reputation as a comparatively clean industry?

Environmental groups have yet to raise their voices. But that doesn’t stop business leaders from worrying that critics will ignore the benefits of the project.

“I don’t think they care. Most of them don’t live here and they don’t care if the Cowlitz County citizens work or not,” said Ted Sprague, president of the Cowlitz Economic Development Council.

Methanol is manufactured by mixing natural gas with other chemicals. Northwest Innovation officials say the plants would run 24 hours a day and release trace emissions of both carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change, and nitrogen oxide, which is also emitted by vehicles, power plants and off-road equipment. Stacks on top of the plant would spew steam, not thick smoke, company officials said.

The plants will not generate any train trips that could block vehicles. It will, however, increase ship traffic to Kalama and Port Westward: 1.8 million tons of liquid methanol will be shipped out the Columbia River annually to an industrial park in China, which uses the chemical to make plastics.

While harmful to ingest, methanol dissolves easily in water. The chemical is highly flammable, and Northwest Innovation officials have met with fire officials to help develop safety precautions. Methanol, also known as wood alcohol, has a long history here, as it is a by-product of pulp and paper making.

Northwest Innovation officials say their plants will leave a green footprint. The Chinese industrial park in the city of Dalien currently buys methanol manufactured by burning coal, which spews at least seven times more greenhouse gases than using natural gas to make methanol.

“We are convinced that our product will be both good for the environment and good for the economy for the long term,” Northwest Innovations Works President Murray “Vee” Godley told Port Westward commissioners during a presentation last month.

Regulators say they are reserving judgment until they actually see permit applications from Northwest Innovations. In Kalama, the company will need a shoreline permit, an air permit and stormwater permit from Washington agencies. Across the river at Port Westward, officials say they’re seeking Oregon land use and stormwater permits and possibly shoreline permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Northwest Innovation officials say they are investigating both sites and haven’t stated when they will file for permits.

Politically, Northwest Innovation, a partnership between the Chinese government and British Petroleum, has been shoring up a lot of support. Business and labor groups have both fallen in line, partly because Northwest Innovation says it will hire union contractors to build the plants. The company must, however, obtain permits from state agencies operating under the authority of Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, who has spoken in support of green businesses and who is requiring an unprecedented level of environmental review of two Washington coal terminal proposals, including one in Longview.

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