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Oregon Renewable Fuel Project Draws Fire from Locals

The Port Westward Industrial Park in Columbia County has been at the center of a controversial renewable fuel project that faces scrutiny from communities who say they will be left to pick up the pieces of a failed operation.

(TNS) — In a quiet northern pocket of rural Oregon, the soil is dark and damp. Mint and blueberries thrive here. Wetlands host unique plants and wildlife. There's also a deepwater port along the Columbia River.

The Port Westward Industrial Park in Columbia County has been at the center of a controversial renewable fuel project. NEXT Renewable Fuels wants to enter a market that pivots away from fossil fuels. The future is here, NEXT says.

Renewable fuel plants have seen little success in the region. All of them face scrutiny from communities who say they will be left to pick up the pieces of a failed operation.

While experts and government agencies agree on going green, the NEXT facility faces challenges to its proposed, $2 billion plant that would convert organic oils and fats into 50,000 barrels per day of renewable diesel.

The reasons why point to a lack of renewable fuel research, local distrust of corporations and uncertainty that facilities like this can financially survive.


NEXT has said the plant would remove over 7.7 million tons of carbon emissions from the environment. Clean fuel could go across the West Coast, supply airplanes with emission-free fuel and eventually eliminate the need for petroleum.

Opponents, including the Columbia Riverkeeper and Mike Seely of the Seely Mint Farm, have a less optimistic view. They say having another oil plant — even clean oil — puts crops and wildlife at risk. The chance of flooding or earthquakes looms. A spill or burst pipe could have unsettling consequences.

"I don't think we should be considered the bad guys because we're raising valid criticisms our local officials haven't asked," said Diane Dick, a local environmental activist and volunteer.

Research on renewable fuel is sparse, said Dane Camenzind, a Washington State University researcher on sustainable product supply chains and renewable fuel sources.

"As a university researcher, once industry feels comfortable it's low enough risk that they can take it and commercialize it, that's usually where a lot of research ends," Camenzind said. "So it's not something we can track as tightly right now."

This creates a core question of whether these carbon-negative claims are true.

Seely, owner of the mint farm near Port Westward, said the risks outweigh the potential benefits.

"There's nothing they can do that's going to save that refinery if we have a major earthquake," Seely said. "They should build in a much more stable area rather than on ground that's basically below the river."

Seely said his mint and blueberry plants rely on thick, well-irrigated soil. A specific network of drainage makes his farming possible. Another oil facility could jeopardize that.

Port Westward currently has another refinery, Global Partners, that also produces renewable diesel.

"I don't believe you should build any sort of refinery here," Seely said. "It could contaminate us, it could contaminate the water. It's too unstable."

NEXT has committed to wetland restoration projects. NEXT spokesperson Michael Hinrichs said they will include emergency automatic shutdowns in the event of a burst pipe or natural disasters.

"There are always going to be production risks," Hinrichs said. "What we're doing is creating a model where we have a lot of variability and optionality so that we can source from all over and ensure our facility remains up and running."


What goes unchallenged is that using organic, seemingly inexhaustible sources — used cooking oil, animal and fish oils, grease or seed oils — is the ideal future for fuel.

The questions are how and where. How do you get enough to make 50,000 barrels of renewable diesel daily? Where will it come from? And how will it get here?

"The biggest problem here is getting enough," said Renata Bura, a University of Washington researcher at the Clean Energy Institute. "The process is very well-established from the technical side, but getting feedstock is what's going to be crucial here."

Six states have what the U.S. Energy Information Administration considers a biofuels plant, meaning both renewable diesel and biodiesel.

Washington state has one, Oregon has none. BP Cherry Point near Bellingham has a production capacity of 66 million gallons per year, according to the EIA.

NEXT claims it will produce more than 760 million gallons per year.

Rick Gustafson, a University of Washington researcher focused on environmental chemistry and engineering, said he hesitates to believe such lofty claims.

"A big one for green diesel, let's say, is about 100 million gallons," Gustafson said. "And that would be huge."

Biofuel plants in the U.S. get about half of their oil from soybeans, according to a 2022 report from environmental research group Cerulogy. Other sources, like canola oil or animal fats, make up a less significant chunk.

A plant in the Pacific Northwest could feasibly make about 70 million gallons per year with readily available feedstock sources, according to a 2019 analysis from the Port of Seattle and Washington State University.

Dick said she has trouble believing NEXT will get enough oil and that it won't rely on mass-producing soybeans.

"Environmentalists are always asked to prove their statements," Dick said. "If these people are making these claims, then prove it. Show me where they're going to get their feedstock, tell me what its carbon footprint is and how it's sustainable."

That won't be a problem for NEXT, Hinrichs said. They secured a contract with BP that guarantees, or at least holds BP responsible for, organic oils.

NEXT will ship in a different source: fish oil from Pacific Asia.

Fish oil does not rely on vegetable oil production, which would have to skyrocket to meet NEXT's goal, according to the Cerulogy report. Ships also emit less carbon than rail or truck.

"We get hit with the argument all the time that, 'You're just going to get soybeans grown in Iowa,' and that just doesn't make sense from a business perspective," Hinrichs said. "We can use this fish grease that's already been used four times, put that on a ship and bring it right to our dock."

A concern is that if there isn't enough fish oil, animal fats or used cooking oil, some alternatives bring the term "environmentally friendly" into question, Bura said. One source includes using palm oil, which is linked to mass deforestation.

Then there's transporting this newly made fuel. Once sent from Port Westward, delivering to central or southern Oregon would likely require truck or rail.

Questions remain, Bura said. And no one can say for sure until NEXT's facility is operating.


Oregon, California and Washington state all passed tax credits to clean fuel projects and penalties to the states' biggest climate offenders. A federal tax credit in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act is aimed at boosting sustainable aviation fuel production.

Hinrichs said Oregon's tax credits make it cheaper to produce and buy renewable diesel.

The facility has also promised to bring in 3,500 unionized jobs and $45 million of tax revenue for Port Westward and larger Columbia County.

Willy Myers, executive secretary for the Columbia Pacific Building Trades Council, said though the facility will neighbor rural farmland, the deepwater port is ultimately an industrial site.

Workers can gain experience in the growing clean energy sector, which works with new technology and equipment poised to become the norm in the trades, Myers said.

"The ports need to have business in order to be functional," Myers said. "We need to have imports and exports going in and out of those terminals. That's the reason why they were designated port properties. Yes, there is a large rural community out there. ... But there is a need for those industrial jobs."

Engineers are already testing "green fuel" in airplanes. Theoretically, NEXT's agreements with companies like Shell means a regular gas pump in southern or central Oregon could soon fill a diesel truck at no extra cost and with environmental benefits.

The rise in renewable fuels means considering how it could disrupt other markets, the Cerulogy report notes.

Biodiesel plants and petroleum refineries would be in direct competition with renewable diesel. The switch to electric vehicles — also encouraged by Oregon and Washington's climate policies — would make diesel obsolete.

"We're still going to need liquid fuels, at least for the foreseeable future, to run things like airplanes, which have shockingly long lifespans," Camenzind said. "It's certainly a technology that's well-established and respected. And once (these plants) are up and running, they seem to do pretty well."

Bura said companies sometimes overlook potential problems and build facilities that are too big too fast.

"Maybe we're just jaded by the facilities we've seen over the last decade or so, but this is not easy," Gustafson said. "If it gets up and running, and the process works and they can produce 700 million gallons a year and sell it, then that's fantastic. That would be really good."

NEXT has already secured several key local and state permits, and United Airlines has invested potentially $37 million into the site. But the hotly debated facility has more hurdles before Port Westward sees green diesel flowing freely.

Sydney Brown is a news reporter for The Daily News covering education and environmental issues in Cowlitz County.

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