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The Future of Coal

Pete Springer/OPB

Last week the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ruled for the first time that carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases are health-harming pollutants. It’s a watershed move that that some say might open the door for greater regulation of coal — a top carbon emitter when burned — as a source of electricity.

So what does this mean for Oregon, where about 40 percent of our electricity is generated by coal, one of the cheapest and most plentiful, if dirtiest, sources of energy? This is our first contribution to The Switch, the OPB News series about the future of energy in the northwest.

In 2007, the state legislature set its own ambitious goal of reducing carbon emissions to 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and to 75 percent below those levels by 2050. Efforts to authorize the Western Climate Initiative, of which Oregon is a part, have stalled in many state legislatures. A bill currently under consideration in Oregon would, among other things, require the Public Utility Commission to draft a plan on how utilities will reach 2007 targets. Other pending legislation would effectively bar the construction of future pulverized coal plants in Oregon.

Oregon’s major investor-owned utilities — Portland General Electric (PGE) and PacifiCorp — both rely on coal-fired power. PGE’s Boardman coal plant (the only one in the state) provides about 15 percent of the utility’s generating capacity. Meanwhile, PacifiCorp relies on coal for about 65 percent of the power it provides Oregon residents. Both utilities argue that a state-by-state or regional cap-and-trade approach would be ineffective, expensive and economically crippling. Rather, they assert that the federal government should implement a nationwide cap-and-trade system. At the same time, environmental advocates, such as Ivan Maluski of the Oregon chapter of Sierra Club, contend that the state must proceed “expeditiously” with reducing its emissions instead of waiting for action at the national level.

So what can we expect from Washington, D.C.? Despite the EPA ruling on carbon dioxide, the Obama administration has signaled its willingness to defer to Congress, where this week the House energy committee holds hearings on a plan to reduce greenhouse gases 20 percent by 2020. The Obama administration would like Congress to complete emissions-reducing legislation by the end of the year when global climate change talks are scheduled in Copenhagen.

And what about clean coal? Billions of dollars, after all, were included in the stimulus package for research into technology that even its advocates concede may be decades away.

As the country marks Earth Day, what changes are on the horizon when it comes to coal as an energy source? How might increased regulation of carbon dioxide affect you? As a business owner or homeowner, what concerns do you have about your utility rates or the effect of your power usage on the environment? What is the appropriate balance to strike in the state’s energy portfolio?


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