Methanol Refineries, Community Scientists, and Doughnuts

Methanol Refineries, Community Scientists, and Doughnuts

By Patricia Kullberg

April 26, 2021

When the Chinese company Northwest Innovation Works (NWIW) showed up in 2014 to pitch their methanol refinery to the Port of Kalama, in Kalama, Washington, local resident Dianne Dick knew it was bad news: “We’re not fossil fuel people.”1 As she explains, the area was once host to the world’s largest sawmill.2 Lumber is what the community understands. NWIW “knew we didn’t know about petrochemicals.” Right from the get-go, Dick says, the company tried to “cover up, obfuscate, and manipulate data” to promote their plans to build the world’s largest methane-to-methanol refinery in the small riverside town. The methanol would be used in China to make plastic. The selling points for local residents were jobs and tax revenue.

NWIW is only one in a long parade of transnational fossil fuel corporations that would like to refashion the Pacific Northwest US into a hub for fossil fuel processing and export.3 The region is ideal for its cheap electricity, abundant water, and ready access to Asian markets. The company has already signed a lease option with the Port of Columbia County to build a second equally large refinery on the Oregon side of the Columbia River, which would also make methanol from fracked gas (methane).4 NWIW is banking on the lack of familiarity among locals with the science of fossil fuels and climate change. What they have failed to consider is resistance from people like Dick. After six years, NWIW has not been able to win the permits it needs to break ground in Kalama.

Diane Dick does not have a degree in science, but she has a knack for it. “I’m a numbers person,” she says. So when NWIW came to town, she rolled up her sleeves. She admits, “It wasn’t what I wanted to do ⁠— spend a Saturday night researching what was involved in cracking.” Cracking, she explains, is a process involved in the refining of petroleum. But she understands what is at stake: not only the beauty, tranquility and (relatively) unspoiled environment of the Pacific Northwest, but the pressing need to avert climate disaster. The methanol refinery would pump 4.8 million metric tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year for forty years.5 If NWIW builds its facilities in Oregon, then we can double that number. According to the EPA, 4.8 million metric tons is equivalent to the annual emissions of about one million passenger cars.6

For Sally Keely, it’s not Saturday nights. It’s what she jokingly calls her “methanol Mondays,” the day she devotes each week to researching her opposition to the refinery. Keely, also a long-term resident of the Kalama community, is another foot soldier in a small army of community scientists at the forefront of the resistance to the fossil fuel industry. She holds a Master of Science in Mathematics and has taught mathematics at Clark College for twenty-five years. Numbers do not intimidate her. But fossil fuel energy science? “That was all new to me,” she says. 

Keely is skeptical of all of NWIW’s numbers because “they lie so much.” She has made it her job to figure out where they get their numbers, and it’s not easy. For example, in the 2019 Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement from the Washington State Department of Ecology (FSEIS), NWIW used a methane leakage rate of 0.32 percent to calculate how much methane would escape into the atmosphere through normal operations.7 That struck Keely as egregiously — and self-servingly — low. Rates of methane leakage are highly controversial. According to a 2015 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, estimates have ranged from one to nine percent, depending on study methodology, geology, industrial practices, infrastructure condition, and a host of other factors.8 The rate of 0.32 percent turned out to be “cherry-picked” from a Canadian grad student paper, Keely says.9 At the time the FSEIS came out, GHGenius had data on their website that indicated the 0.32% leak rate came from a single wellhead in a single spot in Northern British Columbia or Alberta. That measurement was taken by a graduate student who was working for them at the time in the field. The actual raw data was on GHGenius’ website until they upgraded from 4.03 to the newer version 5.0 and, simultaneously, updated their website.

Part of the problem, as Dan Serres of Columbia Riverkeeper points out, is that the science of methane is dominated by the gas industry, which is itself proprietary, secretive, and poorly regulated. Or, as The New York Times put it in their 2019 exposé of methane leakage, emissions are “loosely regulated, difficult to detect and rising sharply.”10

Serres, a native Oregonian, holds an interdisciplinary Master’s of Science in Earth Systems Science, but he admits that he was a lightweight in the science department and prefers history. He has been dogging the fossil fuel industry in the Pacific Northwest for close to two decades. He thinks the methane leakage rate has become a “distraction from the big picture,” which is the overall impact of the refinery on global warming. 

The big picture was precisely what was missing from the initial Environmental Impact Statement produced by NWIW in collaboration with the Port of Kalama in 2016. In that analysis, NWIW and local officials failed to take into consideration any greenhouse gas emissions beyond the footprint of the Kalama facility.11 Community scientists cried foul. Subsequent calculations by the Washington State Department of Ecology showed that only about twenty percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions from the project would come from the site itself.12 In other words, the document obscured eighty percent of the total impact on global carbon emissions. Facing an avalanche of protest, state regulators told NWIW to go back to the drawing board and produce a life cycle analysis (LCA).

An LCA counts all greenhouse gas emissions related to a project, including those from the extraction, transport, processing, storage, and end-use of the product. The fossil fuel industry has attempted to conceal the overall climate effects of fossil fuels by excluding this analysis. It is like telling yourself that the fat and the sugar from the doughnuts you eat every day at work are not bad for you because you do not eat them at home. It represents yet another deployment of junk science: data that is outdated, manipulated, cherry-picked, or lacking evidence. 

In 2019, NWIW, in collaboration with the Port of Kalama and Cowlitz County, produced a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement with an LCA under the banner headline: “Proposed Kalama Methanol Plant to Bring Dramatic GHG [Greenhouse Gas] Reductions.”13 The analysis purported to prove that the plant would result in a net reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions because it would replace coal-derived feedstocks for plastic production.14

But the science was all wrong. This was the same document that deployed the 0.32 percent methane leakage rate that Sally Keely balked at. The analysis also used an outdated metric for the potency of methane as a greenhouse gas (GHG) called the Global Warming Potential (GWP). GWP is a metric used to compare the GHG effects of different gases over time compared to the same amount of CO2. For example, according to the 2014 AR5 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), methane is thirty times more potent than CO2 when measured over one hundred years. Instead of using this factor, the FSEIS used the potency factor of twenty-five times from the 2007 AR4 report of the IPCC.15 By avoiding use of the scientifically updated metric, they lowballed the effect of methane emissions by seventeen percent.

Use of a one hundred year GWP for methane is itself problematic. Policymakers use both one hundred year and twenty year standards, but the IPCC cautions against using the one hundred year standard for short-lived methane.16 This is because methane’s greenhouse gas effect is much more severe in the first ten to twelve years after release and then tapers off considerably as it degrades to ozone, carbon dioxide, and other less potent GHGs.17 Calculating its impact over one hundred years reduces its apparent impact by nearly threefold (a GWP of thirty versus eighty-five).18 It’s like telling yourself that eating two doughnuts a day for ten years won’t be so bad because, in the following decades, you’ll work some fresh fruit into your diet, even though you could be dead of diabetes and heart disease by then. Like the fast food industry, the fossil fuel industry would have us indulge our desires to consume without regard for our future well-being. It is their profit and our loss.

Community scientists tore the NWIW analysis to shreds. The Department of Ecology agreed with their critical evaluation. 

As Dianne Dick wrote in a pugnacious op-ed for her local press, the environmental review was supervised by local jurisdictions, which had “no experience in petrochemical permitting” and were not prepared to evaluate or manage an environmental assessment of this magnitude and technical complexity.19 That’s one reason why fossil fuel corporations try to site their projects in smaller jurisdictions with fewer resources. They are inexperienced with environmental assessments and are often hungry for jobs and tax revenue.

At this point, the Department of Ecology took over the process. A draft of the Second Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, meant to address the shortcomings of the first, was prepared with the assistance of for-profit consulting firms hired by the Department of Ecology.20 It was released in September of 2020 for public comment. It too came to the conclusion that a massive methane-to-methanol refinery in Kalama to produce feedstock for the manufacture of plastics in China would be a good thing for reducing global warming.21

Dan Serres had no problem with the science of the second supplement until, he says, it stopped being science and veered into wild speculation. It’s an “absurd discussion…that missed the fundamental crisis” of global warming. Diane Dick is more blunt in her assessment: “It’s the same old crap.” What they are referring to is the so-called “emission sensitivity model” of the draft second supplement, which is a market analysis of fossil fuels and their products.22 The analysis “proves” that methanol is great because it’s better than coal, but as Dick notes, they’ve chosen the lowest possible standard. Alternative, low-carbon ways to produce plastics, like bio-based feedstocks, are not even considered in the analysis, presumably because they are currently priced out of the market.23 It is as if every single medical expert tells you to quit the doughnuts altogether because now you’ve developed diabetes, but you decide that eating a cake doughnut every day instead of a glazed one would be a reasonable first step. And besides, doughnuts are cheap compared to fresh fruit.

The market analysis derives its numbers from speculations and assumptions without much evidence. For example, the model assumes that, at most, forty percent of the methanol produced would be diverted from plastics manufacturing to be used as a fuel.24 This matters because, according to the document itself, using methanol for fuel instead of plastics increases its total greenhouse gas emissions by a factor of 2.6.25 The forty / sixty split of fuel and plastics, Serres says, seems to be pulled out of thin air.

As recently as 2019, NWIW was telling local authorities that one hundred percent of its methanol would be used for plastics. But then a presentation from NWIW to its investors that directly contradicted this assertion was leaked to Columbia Riverkeeper and published by Oregon Public Broadcasting.26 The NWIW presentation described, in glowing terms, the growing “market opportunity” for selling methanol as a fuel to the Chinese, a market they projected would outstrip that of plastics.27 Apparently, mindful of this duplicity, the market analysis projects the use of methanol for plastics not at one hundred percent, but only sixty percent . Their evidence was current market trends projected decades into an uncertain future and the fact that NWIW has “indicated that they are targeting the [plastics] market.”28 In essence, the model takes speculation and corporate intention (which NWIW has already been caught misrepresenting to regulators), converts them into a number, and passes that number off as objective analysis. Community scientists were not fooled. 

But it gets worse. At the heart of the model is the proposition that “scenarios with substantially different global policies (fossil fuel/plastics phase outs or bans, for example) are too uncertain to include in this analysis.”29 This is to say that the kind of environmental regulations that are needed to avert climate disaster are dismissed out-of-hand as factors to take into consideration. To Serres, it’s “a dismal way to look at things, that it can never be regulated.” It is also a value judgment in the guise of objectivity, a judgment that recognizes nothing but the market as a governing force in human life. It is a cynical stance for a regulatory agency to take.

In evaluating the NWIW proposal, many in the Pacific Northwest look beyond the market for answers as they face a number of critical questions: What sacrifices are we willing to make and for what gains? How can we be fair, compassionate, and democratic in our choices? How should we relate to the natural world? How do we want to live? Science, Sally Keely says, “is my guide to analyzing these questions… This does not diminish my emotional connection with our earth and environment; it enhances it. I can marvel at how scientific processes produce a gorgeous sunset, a naturally filtered stream, and rock formations.” 

Dianne Dick agrees. Science, she says, is but one lens on reality and has value when practiced with integrity and transparency. “Science can inform, but it can’t make you care.” Other lenses, she notes, include spiritual beliefs, cultural mores, and moral imperatives. As for sacrifice, Keely has no problem giving up the doughnuts, but she is clear about what she is not willing to sacrifice: “clean air, clean water, good health and well-being.”


On November 23, 2020, a federal court in Tacoma, Washington vacated two water permits previously granted to NWIW by the Army Corps of Engineers due to inadequate assessments of the impact on the local environment and global greenhouse gas emissions.30 On December 21, 2020, the Washington State Department of Ecology released its Final Second Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement.31 After reviewing 4,700 comments on the draft statement, the agency made several changes to their assessment, concluding that the in-state impact on GHG emissions would be significant. They also noted that the increased production of methanol would cause more methanol to be used as fuel and that the project would produce higher global emissions than previously projected.32 On January 19, 2021, the Department of Ecology denied the key shoreline permit for the methanol plant.33

Diane Dick sums it all up: “Northwest Innovation Works deceptively marketed their project to the community, from sugarcoating the product, to diminishing the risks, and finally, constructing a speculative argument that consuming a vast amount of fracked gas for forty years would reduce greenhouse gases. Fighting this project exposed the deceptive marketing of the ‘natural’ gas industry to be an effort to monetize a dirty, stranded asset, not a bridge to a clean energy future. In the end, understanding the science defeated the world’s largest methanol refinery.” 

An earlier version of this article was published in Street Roots on December 16, 2020.

About the Author

Patricia Kullberg, MD, MPH, is a retired primary care physician who served for two decades as the Medical Director of Multnomah County Health Department in Portland. She is currently a science writer for Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility and contributes frequently to KBOO community radio on health related issues.


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