President of NW Innovation Works Murray Godley faced a litany of questions Thursday night about his company's plan to build a $1 billion methanol plant on the Columbia River.
Godley presented the plan to the Port of St. Helens Commission at a packed meeting in Clatskanie, Ore., where people wanted to know about what kinds of jobs the plant would create, what byproducts it would release into the environment and how safe the project would be.
The plant would use natural gas to make a clear methanol liquid that would be exported to China, where it would be used to produce a plastic manufacturing compound called olefin. The company is backed by a branch of the Chinese government and the multinational energy and chemical manufacturing company, BP.
Many of the questions about the project reflected controversies over liquefied natural gas, coal exports and oil-by-rail projects in the region: Would the company have to build a new pipeline for its gas delivery? Would the plant generate a lot of railroad traffic? Is methanol flammable?
And many of them came from Port Commissioner Chris Iverson, one of five board members who are considering a lease with the company on port property in Clatskanie.
"Can you talk about the difference between LNG and methanol?" Iverson asked Godley.
Unlike LNG, Godley said, methanol is a different chemical compound from natural gas, and it can be stored at room temperature. The project wouldn't need to build a new pipeline, Godley said –- at least not in its first phase. And it wouldn't generate any railroad traffic. Methanol is flammable, he said, and the company will develop safety and emergency response plans.
"Some of you may not be familiar with methanol," Godley said in his presentation. "At its most basic level, it's no more than what we used to call wood alcohol. Chances are, you have methanol stored around your house or in your garage."
It's found in Sterno cooking fuel, Godley noted, and windshield-wiper fluid, which is 30 percent methanol by weight.
"It's used in everything from plastic water bottles to carpets and pharmaceutical products," he said.
Godley didn't have answers to every question, but he promised to provide the answers later so the port can post them online.
"I still have a lot of questions," Iverson said after the meeting. "I want to make sure this is a clean, safe business for Columbia County."
The company has proposed another methanol plant in Kalama, Wash., on the Washington side of the Columbia River.
The plants proposed for the Northwest would use natural gas to make methanol instead of some of the more polluting alternatives such as petroleum and coal. The Clatskanie plant will need an air pollution permit from Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, Godley said, and reviews of its impacts to wetland and wildlife.
The first phase of its project could be operational as soon as 2017 if all goes according to plan. From there, the company has plans to expand. The first phase would create 120 full time jobs, according to the company.
For many at the meeting, that was the part that mattered most. Rod Richardson of Rainier works for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 48. He told commissioners the plant can be built safely, and the community needs the jobs.
"This is what puts me to work," Richardson said. "We need this project because we're lacking in everything in every way. We have no revenue. We need jobs. We don't have a sufficient police force. We don't have a sufficient fire department. My family can't call the police and count on them to show up when I'm not home."
The Port of St. Helens Commission may consider a lease with NW Innovation Works at its next meeting Feb. 12.