PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Washington Gov. Jay Inslee recently said he hadn't heard much about a new oil refinery along the Columbia River, but emails show his administration has been working for months to facilitate the project.
Citing emails obtained through a public records request, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported that Inslee's advisers have been courting a project by Riverside Energy to build a combined crude oil and biofuel refinery in Longview, Washington.
Plans for a 45,000 barrels-per-day refinery first surfaced publicly in April. Two thirds of the facility's production would process crude oil shipped by train from the Bakken region of North Dakota to a facility in southwest Washington. The other third would handle used cooking, seed and vegetable oils.
Inslee told reporters at a May 28 news conference that he had "not heard much about it other than what you have reported in the media."
But emails reveal that Inslee's cabinet and staff have been in discussions with Riverside Energy CEO Lou Soumas for nearly a year. Inslee's advisers have invited Soumas to comment on potential legislation that would require cleaner fuels for cars and trucks and asked him to present to staff at different state agencies.
The governor's executive director of policy, Matt Steurwalt, and the state's director of commerce, Brian Bonlender, met with the company's CEO in Steurwalt's office in February, according to the emails.
Ask about the emails during an appearance on The Seattle Channel last week, Inslee said he expects his staff to have such discussions.
"So I think I'd probably categorize these as: we're trying to figure out what they have in mind," Inslee said. "This does not presage any agreement whatsoever or opposition whatsoever because you have to know what you're doing."
Energy projects such as Riverside's proposal must be reviewed by the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council. Inslee could have a final say in the project's approval.
"It's very worrisome that this kind of communication, this kind of lobbying would be happening with the governor's office outside the view of the public, on an issue of this magnitude," said Eric de Place, policy director with Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based progressive think tank.
"We're talking about a very environmentally risky project in a key part of the region," he said.
The proposal outlined in Soumas' pitches aligns with Inslee's push for cleaner-burning fuels. Earlier this year, Inslee directed the Department of Ecology to draft a rule to reduce carbon pollution from fuels for cars and trucks, though he said he wants feedback before starting a formal rule-making process.
The refinery would create a mixture of low carbon jet fuel, gasoline and other petroleum products for use in the region.
Keith Phillips, Inslee's special assistant on climate and energy, said Riverside's proposal is intriguing.
"The idea that they're bringing biofuels and green jet fuels and cleaner gasoline — that's all intriguing, and we're very interested in it," Phillips said.
"But we haven't made any explicit link to the clean fuels standards in part because we are working respectfully with the Legislature on 'can we reach agreement on how to move forward.'"
Phillips said he and other staff have intentionally limited Inslee's involvement in such discussions.