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Monday, May 31, 2010

In Oregon, Student Governments Call for a Future Beyond Coal

This is the first installation in a two-part post series on the Beyond Coal movement in the Pacific Northwest, with a focus on youth engagement. This first in-depth post looks at the Oregon campaign to replace the Boardman Coal Plant with cleaner energy sources by 2014 at the latest. This summer Oregon’s Public Utility Commission has the chance to help propel the state toward a clean energy future by rejecting a plan to keep Boardman open for at least another ten years. Oregon youth have responded with a state-wide campaign to show students support transitioning away from Boardman by 2014 or sooner.

It began in January, when Portland General Electric (PGE) made a big announcement: the major Oregon utility, partial owner and sole operator of the Boardman Coal Plant, proposed a possible timeline for phasing out reliance on Boardman. That was the good news: after months of work on the part of climate activists, PGE had finally acknowledged the risks of associated with their coal-fired coal plant. The bad news? The soonest transition date proposed by PGE fell woefully short of what’s needed to protect Oregon’s environment, our economy, and ratepayers being subjected to the risks of coal dependency. Under PGE’s proposed “2020 Plan,” the Boardman Plant would remain open for a minimum of ten more years.

Media outlets in the Northwest were a-flurry with the news that PGE wanted to decommission its coal plant. Laudatory news articles and editorials poured in, the vast majority framing the issue as one of the PGE responding to public concerns by doing the right thing for the environment. Unfortunately, few stories in the mainstream media probed deeply into the validity of claims PGE made to justify their preferred timetable. Most news sources accepted PGE’s arguments at face value, never asking the essential question of whether a private utility that answers to Wall Street investors should be trusted to essentially regulate itself.

PGE’s analysis flawed, students take action

Yet while the media grew infatuated with PGE’s 2020 Plan, environmental groups and Oregon students decided to act. “This state is my home,” said Tyler Gerlach, a freshman at Linfield College, ”and I’m unwilling to stand by and watch the people that live here be trampled on by a utility company.” We knew the 2020 Plan wouldn’t accomplish what’s needed for both the environment and ratepayers. The 2020 Plan hinged on state and federal regulatory bodies both granting PGE a waiver for pollution prevention upgrades the utility is required to install in 2015. A point largely forgotten by the media was that under the 2020 Plan, if pollution waivers aren’t granted, the utility will go back to the original plan of burning coal at Boardman until 2040 or longer.

If PGE simply made the transition away from Boardman in 2014, it could avoid passing the cost of pollution controls on to ratepayers and eliminate a huge source of carbon on a timescale consistent with Oregon’s pollution reduction goals. Meanwhile, keeping the plant open until 2020 would commit Oregon to at least another decade of burning coal at Boardman, with the costs of burning coal only likely to get higher over time. “2020 is just way too long,” said Katie Taylor, an OSPIRG student organizer at Lane Community College, in an interview with the campus paper The Torch. “I think 2014 is a reasonable deadline.”

PGE’s own studies show 2014 is the transition date that’s best for ratepayers, except in scenarios assuming very high future natural gas prices. In the company’s Integrated Resource Plan, PGE assumes natural gas prices far out of line with projections of third-party bodies like the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. It’s one of several flawed assumptions in PGE’s 2020 Plan: the utility also fails to consider more than one means of replacing Boardman (building a new natural gas unit), and does not adequately account for the fact that federal action on global warming would increase the costs of burning coal. It wasn’t surprising PGE would try to tweak the numbers to give the result most convenient for Wall Street shareholders with an interest in keeping Boardman open. What was more disappointing was that the media seemed poised to let the utility’s assumptions go unquestioned.

Giving Oregon students a voice

Early in the year, youth activists from the Cascade Climate Network, Sierra Student Coalition, and OSPIRG met to forge our strategy for calling PGE out on its claims. Though students had provided critical input on decisions regarding coal in Oregon over the last several months, we knew what would be needed was an even more organized student voice that could unify campuses across the state in favor of transitioning away from Boardman by 2014. Our idea was this: by passing student government resolutions at different campuses, we could show that the bodies elected by students to represent their interests were ready to push for a speedy transition away from Boardman.

Unwilling to settle for only those schools already well-connected to Oregon’s Beyond Coal movement, our team of organizers set out to contact as diverse a list of campuses as possible – from large public universities, to small private schools, to community colleges. To our knowledge, nothing like this had been attempted on this scale in Oregon before: by asking student governments from a large sampling of schools to act in unison on a single issue, our campaign was breaking new ground.

Yet the majority of campuses seemed eager to give students a new voice on this issue. The first batch of resolutions sailed in within weeks. “Boardman threatens our climate, air quality and health,” said Zachary Kitamura, a freshman at Pacific University, which was one of the first schools to pass the resolution. “Ten more years of coal is too long.”

The momentum continues

Our list continued to grow, and soon we picked up our first high school. The student government at McMinnville High School passed its Beyond Coal resolution after students there decided to launch their own resolution campaign, complete with petition drives and a visit to lobby the principal’s office. At the campaign’s conclusion, this public high school in semi-rural, conservative-leaning Yamhill County had joined colleges and universities in declaring its student body’s support for moving beyond coal by 2014. “Boardman is going to close eventually anyway,” said Lindsy Gjesvold of McMinnville High School, explaining her support for the 2014 plan. “Let’s do it on a timescale that makes sense.”

The McMinnville High victory came just in time for an Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) public hearing on pollution permits for the Boardman Plant. By the time of that event, our list of student government resolutions had grown to six. It was enough to lend new weight to the student voice at the hearing. Around thirty youth activists turned out in person to that hearing, where citizens concerned about Boardman’s pollution packed two rooms with a total of around 100 bodies. DEQ staff were visibly impressed, and our presence at the hearing apparently made an impact. Just a couple weeks later, the DEQ announced it wouldn’t rubber-stamp PGE’s request for a pollution waiver.

Meanwhile, at Linfield College a fight was brewing. Students from the campus environmental group had brought up the Beyond Coal resolution, only to meet with unexpectedly strong opposition from a faction that convinced the senate to vote down the resolution on the first attempt to get it passed. Long story short, a web search by a student at Linfield revealed the senator heading up the opposition was the son of the Vice President of Transmission and Distribution Services at PGE. The discovery set the stage for a campus-wide campaign to get the Linfield senate to re-consider the Beyond Coal resolution, and this time do the right thing for their student constituents.

What followed at Linfield was one of the most impressive campus-wide advocacy campaigns I have witnessed at a small private college, made more impressive by the fact that students pulled it off during the busiest time of the year. The environmental group at Linfield set out to educate the student body about the risks of coal to our environment and economy, collecting over 150 student signatures asking the senate to pass the Beyond Coal resolution. Linfield students researched PGE’s assumptions in-depth, and pointed out flaws to the senate. In the week before the final vote, senators received a barrage of emails from constituents asking them to pass the resolution. The Beyond Coal buzz spread so far that one student studying abroad emailed the senate from an Internet cafe in Mexico City. Within four weeks, grassroots organizing at Linfield had done its job: at the last senate meeting of the term, the Linfield student government voted near-unanimously to ask PGE to transition from Boardman by 2014.
During the second half of May, the campaign continued accumulating victories that included passage of Beyond Coal resolutions by two of Oregon’s largest colleges – Portland State University and Oregon State University. Our list now includes student governments at ten schools, among them major public universities, community colleges, several private universities and colleges, and a high school. Passing student government resolutions may not sound as flashy as banner-drops and lock-downs, but the result has been to give Oregon students a more organized voice in regional energy decisions than perhaps we’ve ever had before. With the backing of campus governments representing thousands of Oregon students, we’ll go to decision makers with more credibility than could be achieved in any other way. It’s just in time too, because one state commission is poised to decide whether PGE’s 2020 Plan gets the go-ahead.

Oregon Public Utility Commission is a key player

This summer, the Oregon Public Utility Commission (OPUC) will review PGE’s 2020 Plan and decide whether it’s a good deal for ratepayers. This state-level body is charged with looking at utilities’ plans to check that they make sense for customers, deciding whether ratepayer money is best spent the way each utility has proposed. OPUC can put the brakes on PGE’s plan to keep Boardman open another decade; to do its job right, the commission needs to look carefully at PGE’s assumptions and decide if the its questionable assumptions are reasonable. If PGE has biased its analysis to make replacing Boardman look more expensive than it is, then approving the 2020 Plan is a bad deal for ratepayers.

“It is in the best interest of Oregonians to close the Boardman Plant by 2014,” said Tyler Gerlach of Linfield, ”and OPUC is supposed to look out for our best interest, not that of a private corporation.”

On college campuses across Oregon, student governments looked at many of the same issues OPUC will consider with regards to PGE’s 2020 Plan. At Linfield College for example, the personal connection to PGE of one senator meant the senate was fed all PGE’s talking points – which later were discredited by in-depth research by Linfield students. In the end, the Linfield senate and student governments around the state decided to trust third-party energy analysts above the claims of a utility with an inherent interest in keeping its own coal plant open as long as possible. One after another student governments have rejected PGE’s assumptions and called for a transition away from Boardman by 2014, not just because of environmental concerns but in the interest of PGE’s ratepayers. Wall Street investors will benefit if PGE can postpone the closure date of their coal plant as long as possible – but with coal only likely to grow more expensive, ratepayers stand to lose out.

Ten elected student governments are standing with the long list of environmental, consumer, health advocacy, and faith groups calling for a timely move away from Boardman Coal. By 2014, Oregon’s only in-state coal plant must be replaced by cleaner sources of energy. The state can then move on to ending ties to coal plants located outside state boundaries. To meet the charge of protecting Oregon ratepayers, commissions like the OPUC must reject PGE’s 2020 Plan. By doing so, they can follow in the footsteps of student governments across Oregon that have already spoken up.

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