Governing — along with other forms of leadership — often comes down to a choice between maintaining the status quo or positioning yourself for the future. It often comes down to weighing the costs and the benefits of seeking change, and projecting which market and cultural factors will play a role in the future of the issue in question. Such is the case with Gov. Jay Inslee’s desire to wean Washington utilities off of coal-generated electricity.
Washington gets about 14 percent of its electricity from coal, an amount that is smaller than most states thanks to the region’s abundance of hydroelectric power, access to natural gas, and burgeoning wind-power industry. Because of those resources, Washington has options for generating electricity, and that also gives it options for being a leader in dealing with the issue of coal-generated electricity.
And an issue it is. Coal is messy to extract in a process that leaves scars upon the landscape, and the burning of it contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. According to The Associated Press, coal-fired generation makes up the majority of Washington’s electricity-related carbon pollution and about 16 percent of the state’s total greenhouse gas emissions. That places the issue in the middle of a contentious debate regarding global warming. But whether or not the burning of coal contributes to climate change — a vast majority of scientific research says that it does — the fact is that Washington would be wise to position itself for the future. And that future is slowly moving the United States economy away from the use of coal.
The state’s only coal-fired power plant, a TransAlta facility in Chehalis, reached an agreement a couple years ago with the administration of then-Gov. Chris Gregoire to be rid of coal by 2025 and rely solely upon natural gas. Most of Washington’s coal-generated electricity comes from the Colstrip power plant in Montana and the Jim Bridger plant in Wyoming, and while officials at those sites are lobbying for continued sales to utilities in this state, they surely can see a changing future.
On June 2, the Obama administration is expected to release new federal regulations for power plants, largely designed to reduce emissions from coal-burning facilities. Critics might suggest that this is an overreach on the part of the administration, but The Clean Air Act of 1970, signed into law by Richard Nixon, requires the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate pollution that threatens public health and welfare.
The transformation away from coal will take time. A sweeping, instantaneous elimination of coal-fired electricity could rapidly raise prices on electricity, and that would be harmful to both household and businesses consumers. But a gradual move in that direction for the state would be reasonable and necessary from both an environmental and an economic standpoint. Changes are coming to the way in which coal is used in this country and to the way in which electricity is produced. Washington could work to maintain the status quo, or it could position itself to take advantage of those changes. The logical course is one of preparedness.
At the beginning, these changes will have little impact on the environmental damage that we continue to do as humans. But as a society we must begin somewhere. Twenty, 30, 40 years from now, if we manage to make the difficult — and somewhat expensive — choices now, future generations will thank us.