Why Closing Oregon's Boardman Coal Plant Makes Sense

In several posts I’ve mentioned Oregon’s Boardman Coal Plant as an example of an aging coal-fired power plant contributing to climate change and air pollution. With state agencies poised to make major decisions about the plant later this year, it’s now time to explain exactly why closing this plant within five years is so important. You see it’s not just about Oregon: we’ll be watching more and more coal plant fights pop up in the US as environmental and health groups work to reduce the causes of climate change. What happens to this coal plant in Oregon will affect plants throughout the United States.

The Boardman Plant is operated by PGE—an Oregon utility with a rather green reputation. But lately PGE’s behavior has been anything but green: as state regulators inch toward decisions affecting the utility’s coal plant, PGE is working day and night for permission to burn coal at least 2020. Environmental, health, and faith groups meanwhile are pushing to have the Boardman Plant replaced with clean energy sometime around 2015.

A 2015 closure date would give Oregon a fighting chance at meeting its climate change goals, and would reduce regional haze, acid rain, and other pollution problems. Yet for this to happen, at least two things must fall into place. Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) must adopt strong regional haze rules requiring PGE either close the plant around 2015, or install new pollution controls with a hefty price tag. At the same time the state Public Utilities Commission should refuse to let PGE invest ratepayer money in pollution controls that would keep the plant open much later than 2015.

The DEQ has already rolled out a list of draft options for the Boardman Plant’s retirement that roughly fits what environmental and health groups have been asking for. In September the agency held a series of hearings to collect public comment on these options, and determine whether to keep them in place. Over the span of two weeks, DEQ officials heard Oregonians from one end of the state to the other explain why subjecting the Boardman Plant to tough pollution standards is important. The fact is this plant has been allowed to pollute Oregon’s skies and contribute to climate change for too long already, and it’s time to get serious about the problem.

So is replacing a coal plant with clean energy in five years realistic? The answer is an unequivocal yes—and if you have doubts, just look at the Canadian province of Ontario. Ontario plans to eliminate all its coal plants by the year 2014. On Friday alone, Ontario closed four coal-fired units at two power generating sites; the province has now cut its dependence on coal 40% since 2003. Next to this level of achievement, closing one medium-sized plant like the one at Boardman looks like pretty small beans. State regulators shouldn’t be fooled by PGE’s complaints: closing this plant by 2015 is not only practical, but necessary and in keeping with Oregon’s climate change plans.

During the second half of September, the DEQ heard from Oregonians of all walks of life who don’t want to see last June’s draft pollution standards weakened. The largest hearing, in Portland, was attended by about 150 people—roughly two-thirds of whom came down in favor of the tightest pollution controls. The DEQ and other state agencies should take note: rarely in recent memory has the Oregon public been so engaged in a regional air quality issue. The state should require the toughest possible pollution standards for the Boardman Plant, forcing PGE to seriously consider a 2015 closure date. The support of the public is there, and governments like Ontario’s have already shown how it can be done.

Photo credit: Nick Engelfried

Nick Engelfried is a freelance writer on climate and energy issues, and works with campuses and communities in the Pacific Northwest to reduce the causes of climate change.