Oregon has the opportunity to lead the United States toward a coal-free future and lay groundwork for averting the worst consequences of global warming. Alternatively, state agencies and commissions can bow to industry pressure and set a different kind of precedent, one of prolonging the life of a dirty coal plant for close to a decade or longer, in the process making it very difficult to achieve the reductions in greenhouse emissions which the best climate science mandates. Oregon’s choice has become starkly clear in recent weeks, as the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has laid out three options for the future of the Portland General Electric (PGE) Boardman Coal Plant.
One option for the Boardman Coal Plant would commit Oregon to ten more years of burning coal, while PGE invested huge amounts of ratepayer money into prolonging the plant’s life. A second option would see the coal plant only slightly sooner, while still forcing ratepayers to pay for expensive upgrades. Only one option would require Boardman closing on a timescale consistent with Oregon’s greenhouse emissions reduction goals. That third option lights the one clear path toward Oregon’s clean energy future.
As I’ve written previously, students and youth activists in Oregon have been organizing for months to close the Boardman Coal Plant by the year 2014 – a date selected because it would allow PGE to avoid installing millions of dollars’ worth of pollution control upgrades required on the plant after that time. Most notably, student governments at ten educational institutions in Oregon passed resolutions supporting the 2014 date, which collectively represent over 107,000 Oregon students.
At the same time however, PGE was pushing the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to let most new pollution controls slide and allow Boardman to burn coal until 2020. Fortunately the DEQ rejected PGE’s initial request for pollution waivers. Instead, the agency has proposed a tentative list of three possible routes to Boardman’s closure: PGE can keep Boardman open until 2020 and install $320 million in new pollution controls; the company can run Boardman through 2018 and fork up $100 million worth of controls; or PGE can install only $35 million of essential pollution controls, and close the coal plant somewhere in late 2015 or early 2016.
PGE has a clear choice: commit to the DEQ’s earliest proposed closure scenario for Boardman, or continue the public relations nightmare which burning coal has become for this utility. Yet the choice for Oregon is even more stark. If the Boardman Coal Plant closes in 2015 or early 2016, the state will have a much better chance of meeting its greenhouse emissions reduction goals, and will set an example for the rest of the country. If Boardman continues to burn coal for ten or eight more years, utilities across the nation will seize the chance to ask for lifetime extensions for their own aging, dirty coal plants.
This shouldn’t be such a hard choice to make.