If you say coal in my home state of Washington, more likely than not, people will assume you are talking about coal exports. The terminals currently proposed in Washington and Oregon would enable coal mined in the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming to be shipped to China. This new export avenue would provide a market for American coal, which is becoming less and less economically competitive in the US given the expansion of hydraulic fracturing and decreasing natural gas prices.
In a region proud of its efforts to be more sustainable, coal exports are a galvanizing issue. Participation in public meetings has been staggering with thousands showing up to comment on the proposed environmental impact statement for the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point in northern Washington. (To learn more about this complex issue, check out PBS’s recent documentary.)
Coal Free PSE
This summer I returned to the Pacific Northwest to work on coal and climate change, but I had the interesting challenge of not focusing my efforts on the export issues that have taken center stage. Instead, I worked on the Sierra Club’s Coal Free PSE campaign, which aims to encourage, and ultimately convince, Puget Sound Energy (PSE) to transition entirely off coal.
For decades Washington’s abundant hydropower has made the state a national leader in using less greenhouse-gas-intensive electricity, and just a few years ago, an environmental campaign succeeded in securing a retirement date for the last coal-fired power plant in the state. PSE is the main investor-owned utility for residents on the east side of the Puget Sound in western Washington, providing electricity for over one million Washingtonians. While PSE is respected for its effective customer service and is widely regarded as a green utility – it is the second largest wind developer in the country and has made notable efforts on energy conservation– it still relies on coal for approximately 30 percent of its electricity generation.
Of particular concern to the Sierra Club and the members of the coalition is the Colstrip Generating Plant in Eastern Montana. PSE is the single largest owner of this large, aging coal-fired power plant. The EPA consistently ranks Colstrip as one of the top two sources of greenhouse gas emissions west of the Mississippi, and the plant faces numerous other environmental and public health liabilities.
Many advocacy groups feel compelled to choose between persuading decisionmakers to select a particular course of action and demanding public accountability, especially since holding decisionmakers responsible for their choices could jeopardize the relationships through which these advocacy groups exercise influence. As I witnessed firsthand this summer, there is a way to do both: the Sierra Club relies on an extremely effective blend of the politics of persuasion and the politics of pressure.
Assessing PSE’s Resource Mix
My initial project was to translate and streamline the Sierra Club’s robust, technical analysis of Puget Sound Energy’s 1,000-page Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) in a way that would be accessible and palatable to a broader audience. In an electric IRP, a utility analyzes the various resources it could rely on to provide power to its ratepayers and determines what resource mix is most economically feasible going forward. New IRPs are issued every two years, and the planning process is a critical time for a utility to make sure its resource investments are not leading it down a slippery slope of ever increasing costs.
As an investor-owned utility, PSE is regulated by the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC). The UTC regularly reviews utilities’ proposed rate increases and issues an order allowing for recovery of costs and setting a rate of return. The UTC does not approve the IRPs, but the commissioners can note areas of risk in their comments on the IRP. If that happens, the subject utility likely will reevaluate its plan since it creates uncertainty about whether the UTC will approve proposed rate increases in the coming year.
Starting with the analysis summary, my work with the Sierra Club focused on finding ways to succinctly describe the fundamental flaws we found in PSE’s IRP, specifically in its evaluation of the economics of the Colstrip plant. Throughout the plan, PSE either ignored or vastly underestimated the significant public and environmental health costs that the vintage coal plant faces. PSE’s IRP ultimately dismissed the fact that, while the aging Colstrip plant may be able to be maintained somewhat cheaply in the short term, the plant will likely require increasingly costly investments in coming years to comply with new regulations. Much of my internship centered on communicating these oversights to “grasstops” – elected officials, academic experts, and community leaders – and encouraging them to submit comments to the UTC, expressing their concerns about the IRP.
Lake Washington Rally
In contrast to our efforts to engage influential individuals, my second week on the job I assisted with a rally during which we barged a large inflatable coal plant around one of the bridges of a main interstate highway at rush hour, with a sign urging PSE to move beyond coal. Several subject matter experts spoke at the event, and a group of citizen activists demonstrated their support.
While I wondered if our rally might be conflated with coal exports by the casual observer, I learned that earned media is often the true testament to a successful public event. (Check out the news stories on our event here and here and here.) This type of coverage reaches people in their homes and empowers them as ratepayers to call on their utility to provide them with electricity that won’t result in ever-increasing costs or cause environmental harm. The impact of Colstrip’s pollution on local ranchers in Montana is a particularly compelling rallying point in the Coal Free PSE campaign, the emotionality of which is captured in this documentary.
The official public comment period on PSE’s IRP ended August 16. When I return to FES this fall, I look forward to staying engaged with the campaign. Sooner rather than later, I believe Washington State will finally be able to say that it is 100 percent coal free. This victory will be won both through technical arguments and appeals to emotion, and it will give Washingtonians even more justification for opposing the transport of coal across our state.
Nora Hawkins is a Master of Environmental Management candidate. She graduated from Whitman College in 2008 with a Bachelor of Arts in English and a minor in chemistry. Prior to commencing her studies at Yale, Nora worked as a paralegal in the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, DC. At F&ES she is focused on environmental policy and is committed to building a richer, more genuine dialogue between scientists and policymakers.