Sunday, July 18, 2010

Oregon Offered a Chance at a Coal Free Future

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.

I certainly can’t speak for the hundreds of Oregon students who have rallied around a 2014 closure date for so long. But to me, the DEQ’s 2015-2016 option seems like a reasonable compromise. In selecting that option, PGE would probably see little complaint from environmental groups. The utility could finally begin repairing its green image, seriously damaged by its months-long fight to prolong the life of Oregon’s largest carbon emitter. On the other hand, if PGE continues to pursue much later operating timelines for its coal plant, it will have to keep fighting environmental groups – which haven’t come all this way only to give up now. The 2020 and 2018 options for Boardman are unacceptable in terms of climate and environmental impacts, and the amount of ratepayer money that would have to be thrown at the coal plant to keep it running.

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.