Methanol, Tacoma, Process, Politics, Facts, Fears

The biggest topic of conversation in Tacoma right now is the proposal by NW Innovation Works to build a methanol refinery in the Tide Flats. You can't get away from the dicussion - in coffee shops, break rooms, and on the sidewalk, everyone seems to be talking about it. So many people showed up to a public comment event at the Convention Center last week that they exceeded the room's capacity - by hundreds of people - prompting the City to add another comment opportunity in a bigger room.

There are a lot of opinions out there, a lot of concern, some confusion, and a lot of motivated citizens talking and taking action. It's enough to make you feel like you should know what's going on. 

The anti-methanol plant folks are vocal about their concerns, mainly over the environmental impacts of the plant on our air, water, and general public safety. The pro voices, when we hear them, argue for the economic boost, including hundreds of jobs in the area. There are details and nuances to these positions that you can find in comment threads all over the Tacoma internet.

What the methanol plant isn't: the already approved Puget Sound Energy Liquefied Natural Gas plant.

What it is: last September posted an in-depth look at methanol refineries. If you want to know a bit of the science and the politics behind the protests, it's worth a read.

Here are some highlights of the process:

  • Natural gas would arrive at the proposed refinery via pipeline. That pipeline would have to travel under parts of Pierce County, including Fife and the Port of Tacoma.
  • At the plant, chemistry happens, and that natural gas is transformed into manufacturing-grade methanol.
  • The whole process uses a lot of energy. It would also use a whole lot of water for production and cooling purposes.
  • The final product of all of this would be transported to China, where it would be transformed into olefins - basic elements of plastic manufacturing.
  • Plastics made from these olefins are turned into everything from cell phones to fleece jackets.

And some highlights of the politics:

  • NW Innovation Works is backed by the Chinese government.
  • The methanol produced here and transported to China would be used instead of coal, which China has (and uses) a lot of, to fuel new plastics manufacturing. Doing so would be cheaper than shipping the coal from interior China to the coast where the plastics manufacturing would take place.
  • Plastics made from this kind of process are turned into everything from cell phones to fleece jackets.
  • The property in question is owned by the Port of Tacoma, which has already approved a lease of the old Kaiser Alumninum smelter site to NW Innovation Works in 2014. The minutes from that meeting (pdf) make for interesting reading.

Where we're at right now:

The project is in the state environmental review phase. At this point the City of Tacoma, acting as the lead agency on the Environmental Impact Statement, is collecting public comment on the scope of the review. The EIS will identify the likely impacts of the plant, should it get built.

The scoping process continues into February, with public comment opportunities set for Wednesday, February 10 at the Greater Tacoma Convention & Trade Center, and Tuesday, February 16 at Meeker Middle School in NE Tacoma. In response to the initial comment opportunity last week that exceeded the capacity of the Convention Center room it was booked in, the City added the February 10 meeting. That event will be held in the in the Exhibition Hall, which has a capacity of 1,900.

This phase of the process is the time for the public to comment on the potential impacts they want to make sure are studied during the EIS process - potential environmental impacts, alternatives, and mitigations. Comments can also be made in writing via mail, email, or fax (sidebar: people still fax?).

Once the scope has been set, there is still the EIS process itself to get through, including another opportunity for public comment once the draft EIS has been developed. And there will be a lot of permitting to get through after this. According to the NWIW project page, the following are necessary permits for the project:

  • Puget Sound Clean Air Agency construction air contaminant permit
  • A construction Stormwater permit
  • A permit to construct a lateral pipeline
  • City of Tacoma Shoreline Substantial Development Permit
  • Department of Ecology Water Quality Certification
  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Sections 10 and 404 permits

If the project makes it through all of these permits, construction on a first phase of the plant could begin in 2018. If you have opinions, there are a few opportunities to express them coming up. 

If you're looking for more information, there are a few places to get it.

For even more information - facts on the science behind the project - Tacoma's Center for Urban Waters is hosting a four-part series on the methanol plant proposal. Citizens for a Healthy Bay will be collecting questions and topics to be addressed at each of the events. The events will "focus on providing scientific answers to issues already raised by the local community." Speakers will include scientists and other experts who will address issues raised to form a common understanding of the technical and scientific aspects of this complex project. 

  • February 11, 2016 @ 6-8pm: Framing the issues: Local to global perspectives 
  • February 25, 2016 @ 6-8pm Potential impacts on regional water and power supplies 
  • March 3, 2016 @ 6-8pm Potential implications for the local environment 
  • March 10, 2016 @ 6-8pm Developing a common understanding to refine the discussion

There are a lot of opinions, and a lot of information out there - what questions do you still have?

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A big question that neither this post nor the Sightline article touches on is the explosive risk associated with this plant, both alone and in combination with other uses of the Tideflats like the proposed LNG plant (definitely a big explosive risk), U.S. Oil refinery, and oil tank farms in a couple of different locations.  What happens to the other facilities if one of these things blows?  Do we get a domino effect?  What about the fact that the methanol plant—along with the other potentially explosive sites—is sited in an area that will experience liquefaction (i.e., the ground giving way to water and mud) during inevitable future earthquakes that are almost sure to occur at some point during the life of the refinery? 

The water and energy use are problems and unneeded additional challenges for our rivers (especially the Green River), groundwater, and salmon, but what’s most unusual about this proposal is that it (and the LNG plant) are proposed for an area where any major explosion—a forseeable danger—could kill a LOT of people and greatly harm our community.  That’s why you don’t usually see these things in the middle of cities, and why the methanol and LNG plants shouldn’t—absent very compelling evidence that there is no risk of major explosion—be sited in Tacoma.

January 27, 2016 at 1:48 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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Great point Talus!  It’s ironic that China is pushing for this, given their recent history of refinery explosions, especially the one that killed over a hundred people.

January 27, 2016 at 2:18 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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I’m guessing China is putting it here because we are just a little bit better and running these things safely than China is.

February 2, 2016 at 6:50 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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Phil Brooke

Saying “Plastics made from these olefins are turned into everything from cell phones to fleece jackets.”  is simply repeating one of NWIW’s talking points and not an accurate reflection of methanol use.

Groups who have studied the “materials economy” have discovered 95% of plastics produced are for single use convenience items, and 98%-99% of plastics end up in a landfill within 6 months.  The handy useful fleece jacket or cell phone are the 1-5% exception.

In this sense, all the Port of Tacoma will be creating is toxic garbage for landfills around the world.

January 27, 2016 at 3:22 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

15 | 1


You said, “Groups who have studied the “materials economy” have discovered 95% of plastics produced are for single use convenience items, and 98%-99% of plastics end up in a landfill within 6 months.  The handy useful fleece jacket or cell phone are the 1-5% exception.”

Got a cite for that? Is anyone going to tell the public what products the plastic from NWIW will be used for?

January 27, 2016 at 5:22 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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raj michael

Channelcat - its very simple.
You use the methane in the natural gas to convert to methanol. Methanol is then converted to ethylene which is polymerized to polyethylene. It’s the number #1 produced product globally. There are many types of polyethylene. Everything you do is touched by polyethylene - it is a 100% recycleable product.
The issue we have in the US - we don’t recycle because we don’t have sorted collection systems. In Germany for example they recycle glass by the color of glass - there is a collector for brown glass bottles, one for green bottles, one for clear bottles. We need better collection systems.
Go to Singapore - you won’t see a single piece of waste - not even chewing gum on the road. Why? Chewing gum is banned in Singapore.
California banned the use of plastic bags at grocery stores - one of the most idiotic decisions. They use paper, but paper pollutes water so much more. If you really want to understand recycling go to Germany, Denmark, Sweden or Norway.
Sweden for example is so efficient in recycling they import waste from other countries - their own citizens don’t generate enough waste to produce electricity from their waste-energy plants.
Hope this helps.

January 28, 2016 at 4:01 am / Reply / Quote and reply

1 | 6


The Story of Stuff Project is probably the best place for a layperson studying the materials economy to start.  The correct statistic they point out—I went & re-watched it after the methanol hub-bub erupted, is that 99% of stuff we bring into our homes is in the landfill within 6 months.  There is also the perhaps more concerning point that there are dozens of trash cans headed to the landfill in the upstream materials economy for each can we take out to the curb.

It would be great to have Annie Leonard out to Tacoma.  She’s an amazing communicator & brilliant!

March 5, 2016 at 8:37 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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Dr. Raj Michael

This is basic American monetization 101.
1. Who does the resources under the ground belong to?
2. Does a corporate entity have the legal right to monetize these resources for the benefit of shareholders and contribute corresponding taxes for goods consumed in the process?
3. No one likes a windmill in their backyard, but we all want that toaster to work when we have a craving at 2AM or use that powerwash to clean the concrete garage floor when we see fit.
4. The fundamental story becomes - does America want to lead the world in technology innovation and export “technical innovation”?
5. No, “Not in my backyard” is a very easy answer - no fancy analysis needed. Its a preference and we have every right to prefer to see our surroundings the way we envision God intends us to be stewards of the environment,
6. My logic is the following: it comes down to “art of the deal”. We have something that the Chinese want. We have the power to negotiate a transaction and a deal that is a win- win for both Tacoma and the consumers of the product in China. What if you negotiated the following way (remember every task comes with investment cost that has to have a ROI):
- it takes “x” mmbtu of natural gas to produce “y” metric tons of methanol. What if the monetizing entity contributed goodwill “z” for every ton of production from the project?
- Goodwill “z” can take many forms:
>> one of them is taxes
>> another could be planting acres of switchgrass that absorbs 15tons of CO2 per acre (Dept. Agriculture)
>> another could be collect the “CO2” emissions, pipe it for enhanced oil recovery for oil fields in Canada or pump it back into the ground in a salt deposit
>> if you want to reduce the consumption of water, could you have a zero discharge plant? meaning you take water in, but reuse the water 100% within the site and occasionally consume 5 - 10% due to evaporation losses, etc.
>> if you want to reduce the consumption of electricity, could you convince the state to invest in a (solar/wind/hydro) unit just to supply the needs of the plant and get federal DOE funds to monetize this segment of the project?

These are some ideas. The point being - the residents of Tacoma should use this opportunity to create a sustainable value chain that helps their grand children while minimizing/managing the project exposure to the current generation. Boeing building a factory in China is one example of how things may not seem as they look at first glance.

January 28, 2016 at 3:48 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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Can anybody even imagine this being proposed in the Port of Seattle?  It would be laughed out of the room for safety concerns.  So, why locate here?

Ironic that the post before this on E133 is about monied people not caring about and exploiting the poor…

January 28, 2016 at 9:26 am / Reply / Quote and reply

8 | 1


Because the Port of Tacoma is not nearly as close to populated areas as the Port of Seattle is. That said, it might be better to locate something like this in the Cherry Point area northwest of Bellingham

February 2, 2016 at 6:53 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

2 | 2


Is the planned methanol plant a civic nuisance or an worthwhile blue collar job-creation project?  For almost ninety years, with many of them marked by a stinky rotten egg smell, the big pulp mill at the mouth of the Puyallup River symbolized the Tacoma economy, with the nearby downtown area negatively impacted by the factory.  Some rockers performing at the Tacoma Dome refused to sleep in the stinky city while the Tacoma aroma served as a memorable blight on the U.S. Figure Skating Championship at the Tacoma Dome.  The methanol factory site is on the easternmost part of the tideflats but are its financial backers trumpeting in public its economic benefits while working in the background to get it constructed as cheaply as possible without concern for the image and environmental concerns of the larger community?  If the Chinese government is backing the project, is that same state authority willing to put such direct investments into downtown Tacoma construction to create white collar jobs there?  China built the big cranes at the Port of Tacoma’s Pierce County Terminal but it seems its investments in Tacoma are not speculative but are designed for primarily for China’s economic interests.  The computer technology center at the University of Washington in Tacoma is producing bright graduates, many of whom leave to go to jobs in King County that could easily exist in Tacoma with private investment in such local commerce.  Keeping such skilled workers in Tacoma also helps create related jobs for other city residents.  Reasonable questions about plant safety and environmental protections at the proposed methanol plant must be adequately addressed but the larger question is to learn whether such a factory will be a civic albatross that thwarts other needed private investment in the community by prolonging the perception of Tacoma as “Seattle’s dirty backyard” that once referred to vice in the city 65 years ago but that could today refer to the accumulation of polluted sites on the tideflats.  China should not treat Tacoma as just another factory site but rather as a community with a worthwhile civic identity that deserves (as independent engineering consultants could determine upon review of the plans with authority to make recommendations) the best and most safe methanol plant possible.  China needs a methanol factory site at a seaport with large amounts of electricity and water available, so Tacoma should be able to drive a firm bargain to get proper concessions.  China is negotiating to use public power, public water and public port facilities in Pierce County, so full public process is justified, especially when the party seeking the benefit is the government of the world’s second largest economy.  China in general should also be challenged to make direct investments in Tacoma beyond just ones meant to promote citizenship opportunities for certain private investors.  Do Chinese investors view downtown Tacoma as a confident place for investment in the same way that downtown Seattle attracts real estate developers or in their view is Tacoma only worth limited investment in warehouses and raw material factories, like the proposed methanol plant?

January 28, 2016 at 12:59 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

8 | 0

DeeBee Cooper

We should charge a very nice price per gallon for every drop of water this plant converts. The massive exploitation of our water supply, for me, is the worst aspect of this scheme. We are fortunate that we have an adequate and quality water supply that makes for a sustainable future for our City if we are good stewards.

January 30, 2016 at 10:34 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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One thing to understand is that cooling water at industrial facilities that deal in flammable materials doesn’t come straight from the municipal pipes. It receives further treatment to ensure that there are no possible contaminants in it that might interfere with the chemical reactions, or might ignite if the water evaporates away. The treatment process is expensive - so facilities have separate supply and return lines so that they can reuse most of it.

February 2, 2016 at 6:55 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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Krystal Kyer

There is also a free talk about methanol plants on campus of UPS on February 25th:

February 3, 2016 at 10:06 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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A citizens initiative was filed today, Feb 8, concerning this project. If certified and eventually passed by voters this fall, it would give Tacoma’s residents a greater voice in the use of its publicly-owned resource, i.e., water. More details at

February 8, 2016 at 5:27 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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