Backers of the would-be worlds biggest gas-to-methanol plant cited ambiguity in the governmental review process as the reason behind the withdrawal.
Backers of the would-be world's biggest gas-to-methanol plant cited "ambiguity in the governmental review process" as the reason behind the withdrawal. George Cole/Shutterstock

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The Tacoma News Tribune reports that the developers behind a controversial methanol plant at the Port of Tacoma have decided to back out of the project:

Northwest Innovation Works, the China-backed company that had proposed the $3.4 billion facility on the waterfront former Kaiser smelter site, announced Tuesday that the project had been canceled. Vee Godley, the president of Northwest Innovation Works, said regulatory uncertainty was the reason for the cancellation.

We can trace some of that "regulatory uncertainty" to high-profile protests in recent months.

The methanol plant project, which would have been the biggest of its kind, was originally intended to serve as one of three gas-to-methanol facilities in the Pacific Northwest. Methanol can be converted into something called olefins, a critical component in plastics manufacturing. That's why the project started as a joint venture between BP and the Chinese government—proposed as part of a plan to supply Chinese manufacturers with cheaper and more plentiful American gas to turn into olefins. The joint-venture had planned on investing $5.2 billion in Washington state. It was a plan that Washington's "green" governor Jay Inslee supported.

Part of that support had an environmental argument to it, too. As the Seattle Times' Hal Bernton explained last year, Chinese manufacturers often use olefins produced from coal, which emits more greenhouse gases than natural gas. Inslee said the methanol plant would actually help reduce global emissions.

Nevertheless, local environmental activists kicked protests into high gear. They argued that storing and transporting natural gas and highly volatile methanol on the Tacoma waterfront would put the local population, ecosystems, and economy at risk of spills or explosions. The protesters were also concerned that the plant would require several thousands of gallons of water per minute, drawing on the city's own water supply, and would put significant pressure on the city's wastewater treatment facility. The methanol plant would also be the largest of its kind in an area subject to seismic activity; and why should American officials support environmentally troubling plastics manufacturing anyway?

The protesters put pressure on local government officials, hosted fundraisers, and collected signatures for a proposed charter amendment that would require voter approval for construction of any facility that consumes more than a million gallons of water a day.

In February, Northwest Innovation Works released a statement that they were "surprised by the tone and substance of the vocal opposition that has emerged in Tacoma."

Today, the president of Northwest Innovation Works cited "ambiguity in the governmental review process" as the reason behind the withdrawal.

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Here it's worth noting that Shell gave a similar reason for backing out of the Alaskan Arctic. The company faced disappointing results during last summer's drilling season during an oil price slump, but also noted that the decision reflected "the challenging and unpredictable federal regulatory environment in offshore Alaska."

"Unpredictable federal regulatory environment" or "ambiguity in the governmental review process" are two ways of saying the same thing: that getting everything for your private venture permitted and approved by local governments is no longer a given. In the wake of the Shell decision, local environmental protesters patted themselves on the backs for a job well done, arguing that Shell wouldn't have made the decision without their vocal opposition.

There's no way of knowing whether protests actually played a role in Shell dropping out of the Arctic. Only Shell can tell us that, and it's likely that they never will. But it's also probably safe to say that there would be no "ambiguity in the governmental review process" if protesters hadn't been pestering the bejeezus out of their elected officials to hold Northwest Innovation Works accountable for the impacts of their proposed methanol plant.