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Proposed Oil Refinery Could Help Washington State Meet Clean Fuel Standards


Developers want to build the first refinery on the West Coast in 25 years. The proposed project would be both a biofuel and crude oil refinery in Washington state. This is a plan for meeting clean fuel standards around the region, a plan many environmental groups didn't expect after championing those standards. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Conrad Wilson has the story.

CONRAD WILSON: Longview, Wash. is a city built on industry. Tall stacks from mills and factories define the skyline. The town sits on a bend in the Columbia River, and at its heart is the port.

ASHLEY HELENBERG: It's a great site for redevelopment. The property needs to be put back to use.

WILSON: Ashley Helenberg is with the Port of Longview. She's behind the wheel driving through what was once the port's distribution center. It's some 30 acres. The large blue metal sheds that once held retail goods have slumped into disrepair.

HELENBERG: It's prime real estate that needs to be utilized for economic development, not just sit here and rust away.

WILSON: A company called Riverside Energy wants to build a refinery at the Port of Longview. Its fuel would service the region, especially the Portland Metro area about 50 miles south. The thing that makes this refinery different is that it would produce both crude oil and biofuels. Riverside CEO Lou Soumas says the company's goal is to capitalize on the demand created by low-carbon fuel standards.

LOU SOUMAS: We believe that the West Coast markets are going to be underserved when it comes to lower-carbon fuels, and our intent is to produce lower-carbon fuels.

WILSON: In March, the Oregon legislature reauthorized a measure that requires the state to reduce carbon emissions from transportation by 10 percent during the next decade. California already has a low-carbon fuel standard. And in Washington, Governor Jay Inslee has proposed a clean fuel standard that has yet to become law. Soumas says those new fuel standards make southwest Washington state an attractive place for building the refinery.

SOUMAS: If we develop a refinery in the Pacific Northwest, we're going to want to market our products as close to the refinery as we can.

WILSON: According to the company's proposal, the refinery would process 45,000 barrels of fuel every day. Roughly a third of it would be biofuels. About a dozen trains carrying crude oil and a ship loaded with biofuels would arrive at the facility every month. Those raw materials would be turned into jet fuel, diesel and other products before being barged to markets like Portland. A refinery that mostly produces petroleum products was not part of the plan for environmental groups who lobbied for the region's new fuel standards. Ben Serrurier is a policy specialist with Climate Solutions. The environmental group has advocated for clean fuel legislation in the Pacific Northwest.

BEN SERRURIER: Any increased investment in fossil fuel dependence is, I think personally and as an organization, is not the right direction for Washington or Oregon.

WILSON: Officials implementing Oregon's clean fuel laws agree a crude oil refinery probably was not intended. But they say if the new refinery can get its carbon levels low enough, it could help the state meet new fuel standards.

CORY-ANN WIND: They could be more attractive because they would produce a cleaner, lower-carbon product.

WILSON: Cory-Ann Wind is a planner with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality's Clean Fuels Program.

WIND: If they're a significant producer of these fuels, then it would give the industry as a whole another way to comply with the standard.

WILSON: But even the project's backers, like Riverside's Lou Soumas, say it won't be easy.

SOUMAS: Believe me - any developer, any energy business who's working on the West Coast, there's those who think we're crazy because they just think, you know, you're out there fishing in really turbulent waters. We don't believe that's the case.

WILSON: The refinery still needs the approval of the state before any construction would start. Washington state has never taken less than a year to grant permission for a major energy project. For NPR News, I'm Conrad Wilson in Portland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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