United Airlines puts up millions for biofuel refinery in northwest Oregon

Source: By Bradley W. Parks, Oregon Public Broadcasting • Posted: Wednesday, November 16, 2022

The investment could be a big boost for a Texas company hoping to produce sustainable aviation fuel and renewable diesel along the Columbia River.

United Airlines plans to invest up to $37.5 million into a proposed biofuel refinery near Clatskanie, the airline announced on Tuesday.

The money could be a big boost to the Texas company NEXT Renewables, which wants to build a facility at Port Westward on the lower Columbia River to crank out up to 50,000 barrels a day of sustainable aviation fuel and renewable diesel with recycled organic materials like spent vegetable oil. It would be the largest biofuels refinery on the West Coast.

United’s announcement comes just weeks after state regulators revoked one of the project’s permits and denied another.

An artist's rendering shows a proposed biofuels refinery at the Port Westward on the lower Columbia River near Clatskanie, Ore.

An artist’s rendering shows a proposed biofuels refinery at the Port Westward on the lower Columbia River near Clatskanie, Ore. Courtesy of NEXT Renewables

In late October, the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals, or LUBA, reversed a permit decision from Columbia County that would have allowed the company to build a railyard serving the refinery.

The board found that the type of rail facility NEXT hoped to build, with some 25,000 feet of track for transporting and storing refined fuel and feedstocks, wasn’t allowed on a portion of the land zoned for agricultural use.

Columbia Riverkeeper conservation director Dan Serres called the LUBA decision a “major setback” for the refinery project. The group is one of several that oppose the refinery, saying it poses significant risks to the river and surrounding communities.

“First, it validates community concern about the project and its railyard,” Serres said. “Secondly, it means NEXT doesn’t have the key approvals it needs to get state permits and to move forward with the project.”

The LUBA decision came about a month after the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality denied the company’s application for a water quality permit.

NEXT Renewables spokesperson Michael Hinrichs said in an email that the decisions will not delay the project. But they could complicate its plans to develop rail access. The company already has permits to build the refinery minus the railyard and an air quality permit from DEQ. NEXT is seeking alternatives for rail access to the facility.

Hinrichs said the company was excited to receive United’s support.

“They see the strategic advantages of our Port Westward clean fuels production facility and how it can help transition the aviation industry toward cleaner fuels and cleaner skies,” Hinrichs said.

Biofuels like renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuel are defined by federal agencies as chemically identical to their fossil fuel counterparts but are made from different materials like corn or cooking oil. That means they’re suitable for existing machines but can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

United Airlines said in its announcement that it “could invest as much as $37.5 million into NEXT, as long as the company meets certain milestone targets.” The Chicago-based airline did not specify what those targets would be.

Serres said United needs to consider “tremendous” community opposition to the proposed refinery before investing.

“United Airlines may not see that flying 30,000 feet above,” Serres said. “But when you get down on the ground and imagine putting a massive refinery and railyard on liquefiable soil in the middle of the Columbia River estuary, it just doesn’t make sense.”

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