In Our View: Coal-Free by 2025

Environmentalists, union leaders praised for reaching agreement on TransAlta

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Behold the strange new alliance. You’ve got the environmentalists who want to shut down the TransAlta coal-powered plant near Centralia. And then there are the labor organizations that want to prevent the negative impacts that such a plant closure would have on jobs and the already grim economic climate in Lewis County. As it turns out, each faction will get what it wants. This happened because they were willing to talk with each other, and with Gov. Chris Gregoire, to strike a compromise. As a result, it’s virtually impossible to determine a winner and a loser in this deal.

The Sierra Club has engaged in productive talks with the Thurston-Lewis-Mason Counties Labor Council. Read that sentence again. We doubt you’ve ever seen it before. Environmentalists have long assailed TransAlta as the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state, contributing to much of the haze over and around Mount Rainier.

Meanwhile, labor organizations have continually held that TransAlta employs about 300 workers who earn an average $88,000 annually, plus 400 part-time workers in building and construction trades at the plant. Their combined contributions to the local economy are difficult to exaggerate.

Here’s how they pulled off their agreement, with the governor’s help:

TransAlta will shut down both of its boilers, one by the end of 2020 (five years ahead of the governor’s previous plan) and the other by 2025. Thus, Washington state will be half-way toward becoming coal-free in power production in nine years and will reach that finish line in 14 years.

During that time, TransAlta will be allowed to sell coal power under long-term contracts within Washington. This gives the company more financial stability during the transition.

In 2013, TransAlta will enhance its air pollution control technology, significantly reducing emissions of nitrogen oxides, one of the causes of haze.

To help sustain the local and area economy, TransAlta will contribute a combined $55 million: $30 million in a community investment fund to help with energy efficiency projects, plus $25 million in an energy technology transition fund to support innovative programs.

The provisions of the compromise were incorporated into Senate Bill 5769, which was approved by a vote of 36-13. Among the supporters were Republican Dan Swecker of Rochester, whose district includes the power plant, and two Clark County senators: Republican Don Benton and Democrat Craig Pridemore. Republican Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield opposed the bill.

Bruce Nilles, deputy conservation director with the Sierra Club called the deal “a giant step toward a healthier and safer Washington, free from coal.”

Bob Guenther, president of the Thurston Lewis Mason Counties Labor Council, said “our goal of sustaining good jobs was met with this agreement while providing certainty for all involved including the community, labor, the company, the environment and the (power) grid.”

Gov. Gregoire said the compromise “promises cleaner air for our future, while providing the necessary time to ensure economic stability, job security” and reliable power.

A companion bill in the House is scheduled for a Tuesday hearing before the Committee on Environment. The strange new partners — environmentalists and union leaders — are correctly hoping for continued bipartisan support in that chamber.

This 2011 legislative session is shaping up as one of the most collaborative gatherings in many years. The economic crisis is one reason, but as the TransAlta agreement demonstrates, the increasing capacity to listen and agree is also taking hold … so far.