Construction of largest alternative diesel refinery in U.S. faces permitting challenges

The refinery being built on the Columbia River lost a land-use permit to build a rail yard to receive and distribute supplies.

By: - December 2, 2022 5:45 am
Next renewable diesel plant on the Columbia River

A model of the Advanced Green Diesel refinery from Next Renewable Fuels, Inc. at Port Westward near Clatskanie along the Columbia River. It would be the largest renewable diesel refinery in the country. The company hopes to finish construction by 2024. (Illustration courtesy of Next Renewable Fuels, Inc.)

An Oregon company hoping to build the largest alternative, or renewable, diesel refinery in the country along the Columbia River faces several new permitting challenges that could challenge the project.

In September, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality denied Portland-based Next Renewable Fuels, Inc. a key water permit, and on Oct. 27, the Land Use Board of Appeals ruled it could not build a rail yard as planned because it would be on land zoned for agriculture. 

The rail yard would be for emergency use to receive materials and for fuel distribution should transport on the river shut down, according to Michael Hinrichs, the company’s communications director. 

It’s part of a plan to build the Advanced Green Diesel refinery, where materials such as used cooking oil could be turned into renewable diesel and renewable jet fuel that works like petroleum-based fuels but with fewer greenhouse gas emissions. The refinery would be built on land at Port Westward near Clatskanie. 

The company has not released specifics about what materials, or feedstocks, it would use to process into renewable diesel, but has shared that it is considering used cooking oil, animal fats and fish carcasses as viable options. Other more controversial feedstocks, such as virgin soybean oil or palm oil that are more carbon intensive, will not be used Hinrich said.

Oregon’s environmental department found that replacing conventional petroleum-based diesel with renewable diesel could cut the state’s greenhouse gas emissions from diesel by up to 85%. 

The Land Use Board sided with environmentalists in revoking the land permit, after the environmentalists petitioned the board, arguing a rail yard is too big for agricultural land.

On Tuesday, after the land-use permit was revoked, the Portland-based environmental group Columbia Riverkeeper alerted the Oregon environmental department and the Department of Energy that without the permit, Next was no longer eligible for two other permits it had received from the agencies: an air-quality permit and a site certificate exemption. Both permits require the land-use permit for the rail yard, according to Audrey Leonard, staff attorney for Columbia Riverkeeper.

In her letter to the agencies, Leonard wrote that each should review and revoke the air-quality permit and site exemption certificate. 

“Columbia Riverkeeper is committed to preventing harm to the Columbia River Estuary, including the surrounding community and farmland, where this project is situated,” Leonard said. 

Hinrich said the environmental group is wrong. 

“Columbia Riverkeeper’s claims are either disingenuous or simply uninformed,” he said. Hinrich backed that up with a link to a Nov. 18 environmental quality department report from Interim Director Leah Feldon, stating that the land-use appeal does not affect the air-quality permit issued by the agency. 

That report reinforces for Next that the permits will remain approved and without appeal, according to Hinrich. 

He said the company has other plans it will resubmit for county land use approval that don’t involve the rail yard. The company also plans to refile for the water permit that was previously denied from DEQ.  

Lauren Wirtis, a regional spokesperson for the DEQ, said the agency is reviewing the legal arguments made by Columbia Riverkeeper and conferring with the Oregon Department of Justice.

And at the energy department, spokesperson Jennifer Kalez said the agency is reviewing the letter and will respond to Columbia Riverkeeper within the next week.

Next officials plan to build the refinery at a cost of nearly $2 billion and open it in 2024, according to documents submitted to the agencies. It would eventually produce about 50,000 barrels of alternative diesel per day. 

Leonard said that beyond Columbia Riverkeeper’s concerns over the health of the Columbia River near the refinery, the group is concerned about a lack of transparency around what Next will use to make the alternative diesel.

“The environmental benefits of so-called renewable diesel depend on the feedstocks,” Leonard said. “We would love to know if they can show us where exactly they’re going to be getting these things from to prove that their product is actually going to be clean.”

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.

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