Debate Over Oregon Coal Plant Affects National Climate Strategy

If environmental, health, and consumer groups get their way, Oregon may become the first state in the country to phase out reliance on a large, dirty coal plant in a timescale consistent with what scientists say is required to prevent catastrophic global warming.  Should the plant’s owner, state decision-makers, and other affected parties settle on a timely closure plan, the agreement could pave the way for the retirement of coal plants across the country and the major source of global warming pollution they represent.
At issue is Oregon’s Boardman Coal Plant, operated and partly owned by the private utility company Portland General Electric (PGE).  The only coal plant within Oregon state lines, Boardman is Oregon’s largest single source of carbon dioxide, mercury emissions, and other harmful pollutants.  Earlier this year, after Boardman was found by state agencies to be polluting out of compliance with the Clean Air Act, PGE proposed to deal with clean air regulations by installing limited pollution controls and closing Boardman by the year 2020.  Environmental groups argue this timeline isn’t quick enough. 
“PGE needs to get serious about phasing out Oregon’s only coal plant sooner rather than later,” said Cesia Kearns, an organizer with the Oregon Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.  “PGE’s offer to consider closing the plant by 2020 comes with significant strings attached – namely that Boardman would continue to operate out of compliance with the Clean Air Act for another decade.”  Environmental and consumer groups propose PGE make the transition off Boardman by 2014, allowing it to avoid installing expensive pollution controls required after that date.  The issue will come to a head this summer, when Oregon’s Public Utilities Commission will decide whether keeping Boardman open until 2020 is a good use of ratepayer money.
Charged with ensuring utilities look out for the best interests of their customers, the Public Utilities Commission must decide whether Boardman is a good investment.  Factors include the liklihood of federal carbon pricing that could make coal more expensive, the doubtful ability of PGE to bring the plant into Clean Air Act compliance without major costs, and public opinion trends which show Oregonians increasingly don’t want their electricity bills tied to polluting fuels.  Utilities have traditionally viewed coal plants as a good investment because they offer constant, and until now dependably cheap electricity.  Yet in Oregon that equation may be changing.  “It is in the best interest of Oregonians to close Boardman by 2014,” said Tyler Gerlach, a student at Linfield College.  “The Public Utilities Commission is supposed to look out for our best interest, not that of a private corporation.”
Oregon students have been at the forefront of the push to close Boardman early.  This year student governments at ten Oregon colleges, universities, and high schools passed resolutions urging a timely transition away from the coal plant, almost all singling out 2014 as their preferred date.  Collectively, these student governments represent a constituency of over one hundred thousand Oregon students.  “Boardman’s going to close eventually anyway,” said Lindsy Gjesvold, a student at McMinnville High School.  “Let’s do it on a timescale that makes sense.” 
Should Boardman close by 2014, it would set a precedent for other coal plants all over the US.  Though environmental and health activists are pushing for the retirement of many of these plants, few coal plant battles have progressed as far as the one over Boardman.  The Sierra Club’s national Beyond Coal campaign has set a goal of replacing the whole US coal fleet with cleaner energy by 2030 – and acheiving the first round of closures in the next few years would bode well for that objective.  On the other hand if plants like Boardman continue burning coal for the next decade, it would prove very challenging to wean the US off coal within twenty years. 
PGE maintains keeping Boardman open until 2020 is necessary to provide cheap electricity.  But the plant’s opponents argue the utility may not actually  have the best interests of consumers at heart.  “The costs of pollution controls [if Boardman stays open until 2020] ultimately will be passed on to PGE’s customers,” said Kearns.  “This makes and earlier closure date more desireable for our health, environment, and pocketbooks.”

Photo credit: Smokestack at Boardman Coal Plant

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