Boardman Coal Plant the Hot Topic at Public Hearing

Nick Engelfried

Wednesday night around 400 people packed the Portland Building auditorium and one overflow room, for a Public Utilities Commission hearing to help decide the fate of Oregon’s biggest polluter. The three PUC commissioners, appointed by the governor’s office to watch out for ratepayer interests, sat through three and half hours of public testimony on PGE’s plan to keep the Boardman Coal Plant open until at least 2020. It was busy night, with emotions running high in the hearing room. The take home message is that a lot of people feel strongly about the Boardman issue, and a solid majority wants to see the coal plant shut down sooner than PGE proposes.

For more background on the Boardman issue, you can see my previous posts here and here. For now I’d like to sum up some of the most interesting observations I carried away from Wednesday night’s hearing.

1) PGE did its best to gather support for its “2020 plan,” but was easily overwhelmed anyway. Before the hearing, PGE had evidently done some work to try to turn out its employees in support of its 2020 plan (deceptively named, because the plan’s approval could mean running Boardman until 2040 or beyond). The company turned out as many supporters as it could, but in the end about three-quarters of the audience seemed to support an earlier closure date, such as 2014. Almost all those who testified in support of PGE had a direct relationship either to the utility itself, or to some other industry with an interest in burning coal at Boardman.

2) PGE’s allies are relied on “facts” which were questionable at best. Again and again, those who support burning coal at Boardman until 2020 made the claim that retiring Boardman in 2014 would result in higher electricity rates. Yet it’s not at all clear this is true. In fact the probability of federal carbon regulations between now and 2020 will make coal increasingly expensive, while PGE’s projections assume unrealistically high future prices for alternative fuels. The utility seems to be hoping not too many people will question its claims about rates.

3) The Beyond Coal coalition is extremely diverse. Those testifying in support of the 2014 transition date included health professionals, faith leaders, students, PGE ratepayers, and others. A low income-earning mother spoke about her daughter with asthma, whose health may have been compromised by pollution from Boardman. Senior citizens who have lived in Oregon for decades spoke about watching the Columbia Gorge become more and more polluted. A rep from Oregon’s Young Democrats cited that group’s support for the 2014 option, and youth activists presented a list of ten student governments in Oregon that passed resolutions to support the 2014 date.

4) Some PGE supporters don’t realize what environmental groups are actually asking. One comment that particularly peeked my interest came from a woman who claimed to have read blog posts advocating Boardman be closed “immediately, no matter what the cost” (I’m paraphrasing, but am pretty confident the essence of her statement is accurate). I later had the chance to ask her where she read this, explaining I was a volunteer with the Sierra Club and that I also write for BlueOregon. It turns out the post was something I myself wrote; yet that blog piece says nothing about closing Boardman immediately with no regard to cost. In fact, it quite specifically singles out 2014 as a date that makes sense both for the environment and ratepayers. It’s troubling that many of those who criticize environmental groups don’t seem to have taken time to actually understand what the position of these groups is.

PGE obviously tried hard to make a good showing at this hearing, but they weren’t able to match the efforts of the clean energy crowd. PGE has tried to frame the Boardman controversy as a classic environment-versus-economy conflict, and its “2020 plan” as the reasonable compromise. But as I’ve pointed out before, the 2020 plan is looking less and less viable, and closing Boardman by 2014 would protect ratepayers from financing upgrades to the coal plant. PGE supporters said little last night to convince me they’ve considered these nuances or probed beneath the surface of PGE’s assumptions.

I’m all for listening to both sides of the story, but PGE needs to rely on more than sound bites and surface appearances. The fossil fuel industries are falling fast in the eyes of public opinion, and PGE risks permanently branding itself with the name of Big Polluter. I think this company needs to wake up, and get serious about a timely closure for Boardman.

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    Transparency statement: I volunteer with the Oregon Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. In this post I speak just for myself.

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    Thank you for working and reporting on this issue.

    Too bad the PUC does not hold hearing where the poor people live that actually have to breath this crap. Of course it is easier for the PGE employees...

    The only time we have clean air up here in Southern Wasco County is when Boardman is down. Filthy Filthy Filthy-

    I only wish all of the outlanders could come up here and look at the majestic Cascade Range from Shaniko Flats and contrast days when Boardman is up and churning out filth and when it is closed for repairs.

    There is no clean coal and there is no green PGE.

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    Im glad you spent time in this piece discussing the fact that almost every single person that was in the room wearing a 2020 sticker is connected to PGE in some way. It seems to me we need to do the exact same work here that we did out here at Linfield in passing the Boardman 2014 resolution: unpolarize the issue!

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