Sierra Club organizes effort to close coal-fired plant in Centralia

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

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The Sierra Club brought its “Beyond Coal” campaign to Vancouver last week on the eve of Earth Day, urging an audience of 60 to pressure Gov. Chris Gregoire to close the state’s only coal-fired plant sooner rather than later.

As a first step, Doug Howell, who directs the club’s Coal-Free Washington Campaign, asked members of the audience to write to the governor and ask her to set a time and place for public hearings she had promised 11 months ago on the future of the Centralia plant, TransAlta.

Gregoire and her staff are in the early stages of closed-door talks with TransAlta, the Canadian owner of the 40-year-old coal-fired electrical plant, over how to reduce its carbon footprint. The plant is the state’s largest stationary source of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as a major contributor to haze in wilderness areas and harmful mercury emissions.

In May, Gregoire signed an executive order directing the Department of Ecology to work with the Calgary-based owners of TransAlta to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than half by Dec. 31, 2025. Those talks are in addition to the state’s ongoing negotiations with the company over how it can achieve substantial reductions in the plant’s nitrogen oxide and mercury emissions.

The Sierra Club’s goal is more ambitious. Together with public health, labor and faith-based groups, it has launched a campaign to bring about closure of the plant by 2015, with job retraining for its 300 workers.

It’s part of the environmental organization’s national campaign to eventually close every one of the nation’s 600 remaining coal-fired plants, a feat that leading climate change scientists say could reduce overall U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 80 percent.

Ted Nace, author of the book “Climate Hope: On the Front Lines of the Fight Against Coal,” said the anti-coal movement already has succeeded in halting construction of 128 of the 151 new coal plants in the nation that were proposed as of May 2007.

“This has already surpassed the anti-nuclear power movement,” he said. “Coal is quickly going to the top of the global warming fight.”

Two paths

Washington has a chance to become the nation’s first coal-free state, Howell said, but the governor seems to be following a different path: One that continues a $5 million annual tax break for the company and foresees eventually replacing its coal-fired plant with a new natural gas plant.

“We are at a crossroads,” he said at the Vancouver town hall. “We take a 40-year-old plant and run it for another 15 years. We continue tax subsidies. We seek to help them finance a new gas plant. We generate 900 megawatts that we don’t need, and we still lose jobs.”

The Sierra Club alternative, Howell said, is to close the TransAlta plant by 2015, and in the meantime divert state funds from the tax exemption to retraining TransAlta workers in green energy technology.

TransAlta bought the plant and a nearby coal mine from PacifiCorp and other investors in 2000. The coal mine has since closed, but the company has staunchly defended the validity of the tax break the plant’s previous owner won from the Legislature in 1997 to offset the cost of earlier pollution-reduction efforts and to preserve jobs.

TransAlta officials do not comment on their ongoing negotiations with the state over air quality and climate change issues.

Howell says it’s up to Gregoire to live up to her rhetoric on climate change.

“What this is about at the end of the day is leadership,” he said. “We need her to be that climate leader, not in Copenhagen but here at home.”

Coal: Do we need it?

Howell says the power TransAlta generates, which fluctuates between 750 and 1,300 average megawatts, could easily be replaced with conservation, renewable energy sources and a ramping up of production by existing natural gas plants.

Citing a new report projecting the region’s power needs and generation capacity over the next 20 years, he said in Vancouver, “The coal could be replaced by natural gas that is available right now.”

Not necessarily, said John Harrison, spokesman for the Northwest Planning and Conservation Council, which produced the latest report.

Over the next 20 years, “We can meet 85 percent of our future demand with energy efficiency and the remainder with a combination of renewable energy and a few natural gas plants,” Harrison said. “If we are successful in acquiring all that energy efficiency, we could retire the existing coal-fired plants in the region. They would not be needed.”

But Harrison said the new projections do not assume that coal plants in Washington, Oregon and Montana will go away. For one thing, he said, utilities may need to keep that reliable “baseload” capacity to even out the highs and lows of electricity generated by wind power.

Currently, coal supplies about 20 percent of the electricity used in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana and generates about 85 percent of carbon emissions in the four-state region, he said.

Early stages

State Ecology officials say the governor fully intends to bring the public into decision-making on the future of TransAlta, but it’s still early in the process, and no decisions have been made.

“We’re still developing the timeline for the negotiations,” said Stu Clark, Ecology’s air quality program manager. In fact, he said, the first sit-down meeting with TransAlta officials over a plan to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by half or more just occurred Monday.

Public meetings are likely to happen sometime over the summer, said Ecology spokesman Seth Preston. “There will be more than one meeting at various locations around the state.” Ideally, there will be a draft proposal for the public to respond to at those meetings, he said.

“We are just at the beginning of the negotiations,” Clark said. “What is the best path forward for jobs, the environment, public health and reliable, affordable electricity — that all has to come into play. It is going to take a while.”

Job retraining

Longshoreman Cager Clabaugh, who works at the Port of Vancouver, spoke at the forum about the growth in good-paying jobs that has resulted from the wind energy boom. The port handles wind turbine components that are imported from Denmark and trucked to assembly points at wind farms across the Northwest.

The local International Longshore and Warehouse Union has gained nearly 200 members since 1995, when the wind rush began, Clabaugh said.

But although those jobs have been a boon in Clark County, anti-coal activists need to take into account the potential loss of 300 jobs at the Centralia plant if it closes, he said.

“There are 300 families that rely on that plant to provide for their families,” he said. “They make two and a half times the county average wage. What I would like to see happen is get some infrastructure in place so those folks have some place to transition to.”

A green future

C. Douglas Canoose, a LEED-accredited professional and the owner of IntegraSpec Building Systems in Vancouver, attended the Vancouver town hall. An expert in energy conservation, he said he was inspired by the campaign’s vision of replacing coal with conservation.

“I’m calling some of my associates at the United States Green Building Council to see if we can help out,” he said. “The Building Council is trying to build structures that won’t need the new energy and the new coal-fired plants.”

The Sierra Club, which is working to phase out coal, “is at one end of the saw and we are at the other,” he said, working toward the same goal.

Kathie Durbin: 360-735-4523 or kathie.durbin@columbian.com.