Op-Ed

Physicians oppose methanol refinery

Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility (WPSR) represents over 800 healthcare professionals. As members of WPSR, we are deeply concerned about the methanol refinery proposed for Kalama. (“How a Chinese businessman is going toe-to-toe with Pacific Northwest environmentalists on Methanol”, Seattle Times, July 6, 2017.) This would be the largest such plant in the world, consuming more fracked natural gas than any other sector of our economy. It would emit over 1.2 million metric tons/year of greenhouse gases.

Our state and Gov. Inslee have worked to support “green” energy and the sustainability movement. This is not the way to do it. While the project may have short term benefits, closer inspection reveals that it’s “fools gold”:

The impacts from increasing use of fossil fuels are unacceptable. The consequences of climate change will become enormous in the coming decades if we don’t dramatically reduce our collective carbon footprint. We already face more wildfires, floods, drought, and other severe weather events, extreme temperatures with devastating health impacts, outdoor air quality degradation bringing respiratory and cardiovascular death, problems with water and food scarcity, threatened coastal cities, warming oceans, and the prospect of millions of “climate refugees”. We are at a tipping point on climate change, and this project would take us in the wrong direction!

Use of natural gas, methane, is not progress toward a clean energy future. American natural gas comes largely from fracking, a process fraught with risks at all stages of production. Methane leakage unleashes a climate change agent up to 86 times more potent than CO2. Leakage estimates vary from .2 percent to 10 percent, and a recent 20-year study by the US Department of Transportation documented 17 “pipeline incidents” yearly, cumulatively causing 347 deaths and over 1300 injuries. Fracking uses chemicals known to be carcinogens, neurotoxins and endocrine-disruptors, which can cause birth defects, irreversible lung problems, and premature death.

Increasingly, corporations tout their commitment to sustainable energy. This is clearly the case with Northwest Innovations Works (NWIW), the US subsidiary of a Chinese firm known as Shanghai Bi Ke Clean Energy Technology Company Ltd. Bi Ke Clean Energy is a corporation created by the government-owned Chinese Academy of Sciences. The Northwest Innovations website is replete with assertions of commitment to sustainability. The reality is different.

The idea that using natural gas will minimize use of coal in methanol production is completely unsupported. In addition, NWIW acknowledges that the process to create methanol using natural gas has never been attempted at this scale and is therefore experimental. Finally, the end product, methanol, is largely used in a plastics industry which is itself out of control (see NYT article from July 19, 2017: “The Immense, Eternal Footprint Humanity Leaves on Earth: Plastics”).

Local risks to the population include fire and explosions in an area with moderate to high risk of liquefaction in an earthquake. Methanol is highly flammable. Other risks include ground level air pollution with subsequent respiratory and cardio-vascular illness, and introduction of diesel particulates into the air risking malignancies, respiratory, cardio-vascular and neuro-developmental problems and low neonatal birth weight. Risking the health of local residents to produce plastics for another country is bad policy.

As health care stewards we are dismayed to see this project move forward with aggressive support from Gov. Inslee, ex-Gov. Locke, and other public officials. Inslee has repeatedly promoted sustainable energy as a powerful jobs creator. This project is inconsistent with his goals, with predictions of fewer than 200 full-time jobs.

So here is our plea, Gov. Inslee: Think about your commendable “green” legacy, but also the larger issue — the implications for the health of our families and our planet. Then do the right thing and join with us in opposing this project.

Michael Soman is the retired president of Group Health Physicians and member of the Climate Task Force, Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility. A family physician, he resides on Bainbridge Island. Bruce Amundson is the president of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility. He is a family physician who lives in Shoreline.

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