The Next Step for Fighting Climate Change in the Northwest

In many ways the Pacific Northwest United States has become a leader in fighting climate change. From progressive energy efficiency standards that were adopted before most other US states, to joining with California in implementing clean car standards that became the Obama administration’s model for national policy, Washington and Oregon have been proactive when it comes to curbing carbon emissions and growing the clean energy economy. Now it is time to get serious about what may be the region’s biggest climate change fight of all: eliminating the Northwest’s largest carbon polluter and replacing a dying industry with new green-collar jobs. It is time to transition off Washington’s TransAlta Coal Plant.

The Northwest has already shown itself capable of moving beyond coal. In Oregon the Boardman Coal Plant is slated to close no later than 2020—and likely much sooner, as groups like the Sierra Club continue pushing for the earliest possible date. Yet while the Boardman Plant is the biggest carbon polluter in Oregon, it is dwarfed in size by Washington’s two-unit TransAlta Coal Plant, located near the city of Centralia. At around 1,400 megawatts, TransAlta is more than twice the size of the Boardman Plant. It is the Pacific Northwest’s largest contributor to climate change, emitting well over ten million tons of carbon dioxide each year. Nothing could be more important to reducing the Northwest’s regional carbon footprint than eliminating this mammoth polluter. Fortunately environmental groups have a plan to do just that.

This year Washington’s Environmental Priorities Coalition, composed of more than twenty of the state’s leading environmental groups, has made the TransAlta Plant a statewide priority. The Sierra Club, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and other organizations will be pushing state legislators to transition off the coal plant no later than 2015—while providing new jobs for the community affected by the transition and preparing the way for economic development in the Centralia area. With coal a dying industry in the US, the state of Washington may not ever have such a good opportunity to transition off the TransAlta plant in as responsible a manner as possible, ensuring a phase-out of pollution goes hand in hand with protecting livelihoods.

Is eliminating this coal plant realistic? Absolutely. In fact while TransAlta is bigger than Oregon’s Boardman Coal Plant, it is much less important to meeting the Northwest’s demand for electricity. TransAlta is not a utility responsible for supplying a specific community with energy; rather it is a Canadian-based merchant company that doesn’t have to disclose who it sells power to. There is no evidence most of the electricity generated by Washington’s coal plant is even used inside the Pacific Northwest.

By investing in cleaner power sources, Washington can lead in the new energy economy and create hundreds of jobs while curbing climate change at the same time. For this to happen Washington’s state legislators must seize the moment. The task at hand is to write a bill that will end pollution at TransAlta by 2015 or sooner, while creating the kind of economic development needed to replace jobs lost in Centralia. Should the state fail to act preemptively, Washington faces the prospect of seeing TransAlta shut down eventually anyway thanks to new federal pollution standards—but without the concrete plan for replacing jobs that a state law could provide. With the 2011 legislative session opening this week, the time for action has arrived.

Photo credit: Robert Ashworth