Five years from now, the raw materials China needs to make the latest gadgets, carpets and furniture could pass through the Port of Tacoma.
A Northwest Innovation Works plant will convert natural gas delivered to the site by underground pipe into methanol. From there, the colorless, flammable liquid will travel in a tanker ship across the Pacific Ocean to a plant in China.
There, the methanol will be converted to olefin, a plastic-like substance that can be used to craft a variety of products. Some of the objects — cellphones, furniture and carpet — will end up back in the United States, possibly even through the Port of Tacoma.
But before the methanol starts that journey, its production will use a lot of electricity and water.
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Northwest Innovation Works officials have told Tacoma Public Utilities that at full production the plant would require 400 megawatts, the equivalent of powering approximately 300,000 to 400,000 average homes in the U.S., according to the National Hydropower Association.
The plant also could use 14.4 million gallons of water per day — enough to supply nearly 77,500 homes, according to TPU figures on household water use.
Northwest Innovation Works signed a long-term lease last year with the Port of Tacoma for the former Kaiser Aluminum smelter property. The smelter halted work more than a dozen years ago. The port bought the plant, razed it and cleaned up the site near the head of the Blair Waterway.
It’s good for jobs; it’s good for the port’s finances. It looks to be a very safe use of the property.
Port of Tacoma commissioner Connie Bacon in 2014
“I think it’s just a wonderful proposal,” said Tacoma Port Commissioner Connie Bacon in 2014. “It’s good for jobs; it’s good for the port’s finances. It looks to be a very safe use of the property.”
On the eve of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit in September, the plant’s promoters announced it would double its manufacturing lines from two to four.
The $3.4 billion project will create 1,000 jobs during peak construction and an estimated 260 permanent placements for workers in the region, company spokeswoman Charla Skaggs said.
Financial backers of the Kalama and Tacoma projects include the Chinese government and British Petroleum.
Olefin manufacturers once made methanol primarily from coal, but recently began transitioning to natural gas. The newer process reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 70 percent, Skaggs said.
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China recognizes the need to reduce its reliance on coal, Skaggs said, and the growing demand for olefins. Natural gas is abundant and inexpensive in North America. Skaggs said creating methanol here for export to China is an “economically viable process.”
The plants planned in Washington reduce greenhouse gas emissions further by using technology called ULE, or “ultra-low emissions,” Skaggs said.
While many natural-gas-to-methanol plants burn natural gas for the heat required in the manufacturing process, the Tideflats facility will instead tie into the Tacoma Power electric grid, Skaggs said. That choice will lower emissions of greenhouse gasses even further. This ULE technology reduces greenhouse gas output by a further 70 percent, she said, and the company incorporated it after the Kalama community said greenhouse gas emissions were a concern.
But such precautions haven’t been enough to assure everyone that the plant will be a good neighbor.
David Mueller, whose property on Browns Point Boulevard overlooks the Port of Tacoma, said he and his wife, Pam, moved here about six years ago to retire.
“We are fortunate to find such a beautiful place to live,” Mueller said. “I see so much potential in Tacoma.”
But the couple is wary of the plant’s effect on Tacoma and the environment. They worry the plant will add pollutants to the air and water.
“We have a lot of history in this town of having polluting industries,” Mueller said. “We got rid of Asarco and refurbished the area into something that people are proud of. Then we turn around and build a plant that’s going to be a polluter.”
We got rid of Asarco and refurbished the area into something that people are proud of. Then we turn around and build a plant that's going to be a polluter.
Tacoma resident David Mueller
Malott said the nonprofit has met with the company twice, and is waiting to hear more definitive plans for the methanol plant’s water use. How much will it actually use? What will happen to the water after it’s used to cool the manufacturing process?
Wastewater from the plant would be “extremely warm,” she said. Plus the drain on the region’s water supply could be a concern. “Because of climate change, we have a water-uncertain future,” Malott said, referring to a report released last month by the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group.
Eric de Place, policy director of Seattle-based advocacy group Sightline Institute, said he is skeptical of the company’s claims. His organization has issued a couple of reports questioning whether methanol plants are good for the Northwest, but hasn’t come to any firm conclusions.
“Every fossil fuel project that comes to the Northwest sells itself as a clean-energy solution,” de Place said last week. “It hasn’t checked out in the past. Maybe it does for this one.”
Every fossil fuel project that comes to the Northwest sells itself as a clean energy solution. It hasn’t checked out in the past. Maybe it does for this one.
Sightline Institute policy director Eric de Place
Skaggs said the company will comply with all environmental regulations. The plant has support from Washington’s green governor, Jay Inslee, who last year hailed it as “another milestone for our state’s clean-energy future.”
“Washington state is working to turn the global challenge of carbon pollution into new jobs and strong communities,” Inslee said in a news release. “This project at the former Kaiser site will boost our regional economy while eventually providing a needed supply of clean methanol fuel to Asia.”
The plan will require a lot of power — up to 450 megawatts at its peak. Tacoma Power’s entire customer base used 543 megawatts on average in 2014.
Those customers use most of the city’s power supply, so almost all of the electricity for Northwest Innovation Works will have to be bought from outside sources.
Tacoma Public Utilities Director Bill Gaines said in October that TPU will act as a power “aggregator,” buying power on the open market to supply Northwest Innovation Works’ needs.
But buying power that way comes at a cost and can be more expensive than the power a utility creates for itself. Gaines said that although the utility can spread that cost among all of its customers, he would recommend the new business pay for the increased cost.
“That’s going to be our recommendation to find a way not to put the current customers at risk,” Gaines said.
At the same time, the city should have no trouble serving the plant’s water needs, utility officials say.
14.4 million gallons of water per day the methanol plant could use when in full production by late 2021
The methanol plant’s use could be as high as 10,000 gallons per minute, Skaggs said, or 14.4 million gallons per day. That’s about two-thirds of what Tacoma Water’s residential customers together used in 2014 and nearly as much as the 16.6 million gallons of water per day the WestRock paper mill (formerly Simpson Tacoma Kraft) consumed.
Tacoma Water’s primary source is the Green River watershed, which experienced its driest year on record this year. But the utility also has the right to use several wells, which alone can provide up to 143 million gallons of water per day.
That apparently hasn’t stopped city officials from looking for ways to reduce the draw on Tacoma Water’s supply. City Manager T.C. Broadnax said in October that the city is exploring whether the company could use treated wastewater for part of its water needs.
PUBLIC PROCESS COULD TAKE MONTHS
No permits have been filed for the company’s Tacoma location so far, but a timeline on its website suggests construction could begin in late 2017 and last four years. The company hopes the first phase of the plant would be operational in 2020.
The state designated the city of Tacoma as the lead agency for permitting last month. Nearby property owners, neighborhood groups and some city residents could see a city mailing in early December inviting public comment for the project, said principal planner Shirley Schultz. A public meeting could be held as early as January.
A city consultant will draft an Environmental Impact Statement for public review and comment as early as next summer. The EIS can include details about the project’s environmental impacts, job creation and tax revenues, costs to area neighborhoods, traffic counts, human health affects and more.
I think the methanol plant is something that requires thoughtful and careful scrutiny.
Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland
The company will eventually have to say how it will address, minimize or mitigate concerns. One recent example of such mitigation is Puget Sound Energy’s pledge to pay $5.5 million to rebuild a road to heavy-haul standards and renovate a vacant Tideflats fire station to help provide faster emergency response as part of building the utility’s proposed liquid natural gas plant.
Once the city weighs public comments and the company revises its plans to address them, the city will file a final EIS with the Department of Ecology. Only after that step is complete can the city issue permits, Schultz said.
A separate regulatory process with opportunities for public input will happen once Northwest Innovation Works seeks permission from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for a 10-mile extension to a natural gas pipeline.
“I think the methanol plant is something that requires thoughtful and careful scrutiny,” Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland said. “There will be a long and thorough process” for vetting it.
John Gillie contributed to this report.