Don’t Be Fooled by Pause in Methanol Plant Planning Process

The company Northwest Innovation Works (NWIW) has been planning to build the world’s largest methanol plant in Tacoma. The project poses great risks to the environment, and citizens of Tacoma have been rightfully outraged.

NWIW, citing “the tone and substance of the vocal opposition that has emerged in Tacoma,” has announced on its website that it will postpone the scoping process for several months in order to “engage with the Tacoma community in further dialogue.”

Make no mistake, this is hardly a victory. While Tacomans grow passive toward the pause in production, perhaps even feeling a little won over by the company’s seeming acquiescence to their demands, NWIW will use this time to engage in public-relations work that will glorify the purported benefits of the plant, including the 260 permanent jobs it will create and its supposedly “green” nature.

 

After that, they fully intend to “restart the process” of building the methanol plant.

It is for this reason that we must remain especially committed to our fight. NWIW will ramp up its efforts at self-promotion, and may even make a few minor concessions, but the so-called benefits will come at a great financial and environmental cost to the city of Tacoma’s well-being.

Supposedly, the plant is going to create jobs: 1,000 temporary construction jobs and 260 permanent ones. Furthermore, when more people in Tacoma are making money, spending will increase, stimulating the whole economy.

However, there will also be negative economic consequences. The plant will pollute the air with toxic chemicals including benzene and formaldehyde, which have both been shown to irritate the nose and throat and cause lung problems and leukemia. Formaldehyde also causes reproductive damage and birth defects. According to environmental scientist Wilma Subra, who recently gave a speech about the plant’s ecological risks, those who live close to the methanol plant risk “being exposed to these chemicals by inhalation, ingestion, and skin contact.”

A city where you can get cancer from breathing is not a place most people would like to live. Because housing demand will decrease, property values are likely to drop as fewer people move in and more people move out. A study by Princeton and the University of California, Berkeley found that the construction of industrial plants can cause property values to drop by up to 11%. Moreover, since higher-paid workers can more easily afford to move to a healthier city, consumer spending will significantly decrease as they leave.

Additionally, there is no guarantee that the jobs will be filled by people in Tacoma. In that case, there will be little to no economic benefit for residents of the community.

Health care costs will also increase as residents become sick from the pollution, and tourism will decrease as Tacoma gains a reputation as an unpleasant, toxic city. Appealing activities near Tacoma’s beaches will also be disrupted as a result of wastewater disposal, and waterfront scenery will be made ugly both by the sight of the plant and by pollution. All these factors will deter people from coming to Tacoma and contributing to the economy.

Also, Northwest Innovation Works is owned by the Chinese company Shanghai Bi Ke Clean Energy Co., Ltd., and the methanol it produces will be shipped exclusively to China, where it will be converted into plastic. Currently, China produces most of its methanol through coal, which leads to more pollution than natural gas does. As a result, their government is rapidly encouraging all coal users to switch to natural gas whenever possible in order to solve the national emergency pollution is producing in China. At the same time, the United States is experiencing a boom in cheap natural gas, encouraging China to import from the US.

However, gas demand is dropping in China. China has recently secured access to gas imports from Turkmenistan, Myanmar, and Russia, which investor Zarko Arsov, senior associate at investment bank Taylor DeJongh, believes will more than meet China’s demand for natural gas. Not only that, China has its own significant natural gas reserves. If China develops the technology to exploit them, it may not need to rely on imports from any other countries.

Soon, China may not need the Tacoma methanol plant any more. And if the American supply of cheap gas runs out, this will make it even less attractive to Chinese investors. Will it then be repurposed so that Americans will benefit from the methanol produced there? Or will it simply have to be destroyed, disposed of, and cleaned up, with the remnants of the plant left to pollute somewhere else?

On top of the health risks and environmental damage, the methanol plant in Tacoma would not significantly economically benefit the community. The few job opportunities offered to Tacomans will be outweighed by the brain drain, public health costs, and devaluing of property. Meanwhile, even China, who supposedly will be helped most by the methanol plant, may not need it in the long run after all.

Building a methanol plant in Tacoma is an environmentally harmful decision, and an economically harmful one too. In response to NWIW’s forthcoming PR campaign, let us all shout “Metha-NO!” so loud that we forever drown them out.

Illustration Anna K. Fern

Illustration Anna K. Fern

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