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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Green Oregon's Dirty Secret: Coal!

Posted by Sarah Mirk on Wed, Oct 21, 2009 at 4:18 PM

While most of the discussion over Oregon's energy is about dam removal controversies or our much-lauded new wind turbines, the shocking truth is that 41 percent of the state's energy still comes from coal. Even here in the city aiming to be the sustainability capital of America, for four out of every ten minutes a Portlander plugs in their electric car, the electricity is coming from coal.

Oregon: We suffer from Mercury poisoning.
  • Oregon: We suffer from Mercury poisoning.
And coal, as we all know, is dirty. Portland gets a good chunk of its coal power from the Boardman plant out in eastern Oregon, which, according to the Oregon Department of Energy, burns 300 pounds of coal an hour and is singlehandedly responsible for 65 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions in the state (sulfur dioxide causes lung problems and irritates asthma). A massive report the National Research Council released this week also calculated the "hidden costs" of coal nationwide, since damage from coal shows up in healthcare bills and on the Environmental Protection Agency's tab, to be an astounding $62 billion annually. As Grist says, "Remember this report the next time you hear that 'coal is cheap.'"

Locally, the Sierra Club has launched a campaign to get Oregon off coal. Two weeks ago, the group packed a meeting of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, a governor-appointed group that writes up recommendations for the region's future energy use. There was not a seat left in the Power Council's Ecotrust meeting room, as dozens of people waved red "No Coal" signs on popsicle sticks during a public hearing on the most recent power plan. This afternoon, the Sierra Club marched a human "Coal Train" around an inflatable replica of Boardman in Pioneer Square.

For all the hokey stunts, the anti-coal environmentalists have some solid support in the political ranks. Portland General Electric (PGE) owns Boardman and the Department of Environmental Quality gave the company two options: either shut the plant down by 2014 or install serious environmental upgrades ASAP. Mayor Adams wrote a letter earlier this month, urging the company to shut down Boardman by 2020.

Protestor takes to the floor at packed energy meeting on 10/14.
  • Protestor takes to the floor at packed energy meeting on 10/14.

But it's not clear whether the political and grassroots pressure will actually have any impact on the power companies' policies. As Adams pointed out in his letter, PGE's most recent energy plan actually increases the state's reliance on coal. And while the Power Council's current plan does aim to reduce the state's greenhouse gas emissions, chairman of the Oregon Global Warming Commission Angus Duncan says they significantly underestimate the problem. "Our goals in Oregon and Washington are probably more conservative than they will need to be," Duncan told the council. Steve Corson said in response to Adam's letter that closing Boardman would raise prices for energy customers as PGE would rely more on natural gas if it closed the controversial plant.

PGE's plan will have to be approved by the Public Utilities Commission later this year or in early 2010, while the Power Council will finalize their report in the next couple months. On top of the handful of recent protests against coal, this Saturday 10/24 is the "International Day of Climate Action" and Portland environmentalists are planning a big protest in Pioneer Square 1-3PM. There's also plans to possibly spell out something in the river with kayaks? See, teabag folks, this is why you don't get media attention. You need more kayaks. And inflatable things.

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