NEXT Refinery Project Formally Asks For Lower Rent — Which Records Show It’s Already Paying

A letter from the controversial renewable diesel refinery’s CEO says a boating crash ‘calls into question’ NEXT’s ability to operate the refinery under current conditions.

Share this article!

In February, NEXT Renewable Fuels Inc, under the operating company NXTClean Fuels, petitioned the Port of Columbia County to decrease its monthly rent from $108,497 to $15,000 in the wake of a November boating accident that damaged the dock at the site, calling the future of the project into question.

The Port Commission is set to vote on the proposal March 13. But public records shared with Oregon Business by environmental nonprofit Columbia Riverkeeper show that The Next Energy Group began paying the reduced rate in December, two months before the company submitted the petition.

“Damage inflicted on the Port Westward Dock by the tow boat collision on the morning of November 12, 2023, calls into question NEXT’s ability to ever operate a refinery at the site as stipulated under its Ground Lease Agreement,” NEXT chair and CEO Chris Efird wrote in a letter to the Port Westward director Sean Clark that was submitted as part of the Feb. 14 petition.

“Given the unknown period necessary to bring the dock back into service and the inability of NXT to proceed with engineering until such time as the final dock repairs have been complete, this event renders any existing or estimated timelines void and additional development activities uncertain,” Efird wrote.

NEXT and the Port both declined to comment on the revelation that NEXT had been paying reduced rent for two months before formally requesting the reduction. Opponents of the project say it raises new questions about the project’s viability and whether NEXT intends to keep its promises to the community.

“The Port hasn’t approved this, yet they’re still accepting the $15,000 payments for December and January, and presumably February as well,” says Audrey Leonard, staff attorney for Columbia Riverkeeper, an environmental nonprofit that opposes the NEXT refinery. “I think it demonstrates that they don’t have the money to pay their full rent right now. I don’t know their exact financial state, but it certainly leads us to believe that the board has been sort of relying on NEXT’s promises to be a really fruitful thing for the community.”

“NEXT was touting all the rent money that they’d be bringing into the port, and how they wouldn’t take any tax breaks, and how that would all go into the coffers of the community,” says Columbia County mint farmer Warren Seely, who has been one of the project’s most vocal critics. “ And yet, it just came to light here that since November, they haven’t even been able to make full rent payments to the board,” says Seely.

The proposed refinery has long been a divisive subject among Port Westward locals, generating pushback among local farmers and environmental groups, who have voiced concern about how the operation would impact the surrounding farmlands and wildlife. The project has also drawn scrutiny for its business model and the feasibility of its plan to generate clean fuel.

Port of Columbia County director Sean Clark has been a staunch supporter of the refinery. The NEXT Energy Group has paid nearly $3.5 million in rent to the Port since 2018.

NXTClean Fuels director of communications Michael Hinrichs tells OB over email that the letter from Efird was “emphasizing why the previous agreement timelines are outdated and don’t encompass new permitting timelines or conditions at the dock.”  He also wrote that repairs have not affected the project’s timeline.

“The dock repairs have not delayed anything on our end as we continue advancing through permitting toward approvals. We still have the remaining permitting, plus two years of construction before we commence operations,” Hinrichs wrote.

Seely says he wasn’t surprised by the petition from NEXT, and the Port of Columbia County’s interactions with the company have left him “sick to his stomach.” 

“Throughout the whole process, there has been no consistency or ability to follow through on their promises, and yet everyone seems to continue to feel that they’re going to bring all the good things out here,” Seely says.

In September of last year, Seely was ordered to uproot 19 acres of his peppermint crop by the Port of Columbia County, which reclaimed its land lease from Seely to make way for the refinery’s projected rail yard. 

If NEXT’s request is approved, it would be a significant loss of income for the Port. According to the Port’s Strategic Business Plan, the Port’s total revenue was about $7.2 million for 2023, with over $6 million coming from rent. The resolution would reduce the Port’s rent revenue by $1.1 million over 12 months.