Over the last few days, many of us involved in the struggle to end Oregon’s coal dependence have found ourselves in a state of justified excitement tempered with a dose of realism. The reason? An announcement by Portland General Electric (PGE) that the company is looking at shutting down the Boardman Coal Plant by the year 2020. I’d like to start right off by saying it’s a huge victory that PGE has acknowledged the need to phase out coal at Boardman eventually; this would not have happened without the work of hundreds of people who sent their comments to PGE, testified at hearings this past fall, and turned up the heat on PGE in other ways. But our work isn’t over yet. 2020 is still a decade away, and Oregon activists are even now preparing to enter a new phase of this fight, in which we continue to push PGE to shut down Boardman by the year 2014.
The Sierra Club and its allies originally zeroed in on 2014 as the date by which burning coal at Boardman must end, partly because transitioning the plant off coal by 2014 would mean PGE wouldn’t have to spend $600 million in pollution retrofits by that time to comply with state and federal clean air rules. 2014 is also close enough that closing the plant by that time would give us real of eliminating Oregon’s largest point source of greenhouse emissions soon enough to actually do some good.
PGE apparently believes it can convince federal and state regulators to let it get away with fewer pollution controls than would originally have been required under the Clean Air Act, if it shuts the Boardman Plant down by 2020. It’s unclear how realistic an assumption this is, and I certainly don’t have the requisite knowledge of the legal system to make an educated guess on whether PGE will get its way on this. What’s important to keep in mind though is that, even if the company obtains permission to keep polluting until 2020, that’s no victory for the people of Oregon. That means not only ten more years of Boardman spewing not just greenhouse gas pollution, but the several other pollutants which the control equipment originally mandated before 2015 were intended to reduce.
The still larger issues is that we simply can’t afford ten more years of burning coal at Boardman; with the world approaching climate tipping points, years and even months have become a matter of life and death. Settling for a 2020 shutdown date rather than 2014 would mean settling for 30 million extra tons of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere. And that’s unacceptable.
The Oregon Sierra Club has made the decision to continue pushing for a 2014 shutdown date for the Boardman Plant, and I’ll keep this blog posted as the campaign continues to gain momentum in 2010. For now though, here are a few thoughts on how PGE’s announcement really has given us the upper hand:
First, from this moment on PGE will no longer be able to argue that it can’t in principle meet customers’ needs without the Boardman Plant. Just a few months ago, we were hearing from PGE that Boardman had to be kept on-line as a “baseload” electricity source – this despite some big holes in the whole concept of an essential electricity baseload. Now PGE itself has torpedoed that argument; they’ve admitted that, actually, they could get along without Boardman by 2020. PGE will almost certainly try to hand us another ultimatum, claiming 2020 is the earliest shutdown date possible and that 2014 can’t be done. All such claims should be taken with a large grain of salt; as this week showed, a utility’s definition of the “possible” can change with a few days’ notice.
Second, grassroots activism gets results and can change a utility’s mind. There’s no doubt in my mind that PGE would still be hemming and hawing over the idea of closing Boardman at all, were it not for the grassroots campaign spearheaded by the Sierra Club, that’s been putting more and more pressure on the utility. It would be a mistake to lessen the pressure now. Indeed, it’s now all the more important that we keep pushing PGE to do the right thing, make sure federal and state regulators don’t let the coal plant off the hook, and continue to build this movement. As always, we should acknowledge when a utility takes a step in the right direction – but also refuse a compromise that would lock Oregon into ten more years of burning coal at Boardman.
Finally, if you think the intricacies of this debate apply only to Oregon then think again. Utilities and regulators across the country will be watching this struggle to see what happens next, and whatever does happen could be precedent setting. Oregon has a chance to build up its green economy by saying no to coal, and to lead the nation in a wave of coal plant closures. Expect further updates soon.