PGE Tries to Fool Oregonians, Holds Columbia Gorge Hostage

Nick Engelfried

Without the Public Utilities Commission’s approval, PGE’s threats are not only heavy-handed, they’re at least partly bluff.

It’s now official: with state regulators declining to let the Boardman Coal Plant run through 2020 with minimal pollution controls, PGE intends to hold Oregon’s clean air—and the Columbia River Gorge—hostage. The Portland area’s main utility is throwing a giant-size temper tantrum, employing scary threats and unsubstantiated claims to get its way.

An article on the Boardman Coal Plant in Saturday’s Oregonian was the first major instance where PGE publicly stated it will shelve all plans to close its coal plant, unless state regulators accept the environmentally irresponsible “2020 plan.” The 2020 plan would allow the plant to stay open another ten years, making state carbon-reduction goals all but impossible to achieve. It would also let the utility off the hook regarding pollution controls required under federal law.

The Department of Environmental Quality has rejected the 2020 plan once, suggesting a 2015 closure date if PGE doesn’t want to put in major pollution controls. But PGE hasn’t given up, and now hopes it can threaten agencies and environmental groups into submission.

Here’s a rough paraphrase of PGE’s new line for the public: “Accept our 2020 plan, or you won’t like what happens. We’ll put millions of dollars of your money into pollution controls, then leave our plant running through 2040 or longer. We’ll scrap plans to close the coal plant, and scenic areas like the Columbia River Gorge can pay the consequences. If you want to see Oregon’s air and climate safe again, stop whining about things like federal law.”

In mafia terms, it seems like an offer you can’t refuse. Except PGE has left important facts out of the picture. Forget all the reasons running the coal plant for a decade or longer is a bad idea in the first place. There’s no assurance PGE can even make good on its threat to leave the plant open indefinitely.

PGE can’t run its coal plant through 2040 without using ratepayer money to pay for expensive pollution controls (the same can be said for 2020, though the 2040 option requires even larger investments). To do this, PGE needs approval from Oregon’s Public Utilities Commission, and there’s no guarantee they will get it. The wisdom of the investment is questionable at best: it means gambling on the assumption that at no point in the next thirty years will federal carbon regulations make operating a coal plant uneconomical, or a state law or ballot initiative mandate the Boardman Plant’s closure.

Between increased concern about global warming and environmental groups’ determination to phase out coal, such assumptions are highly unlikely. The Public Utilities Commission would be more than justified in rejecting any plan for the Boardman Coal Plant that includes a 2040 option. And without the Commission’s approval, PGE’s threats are not only heavy-handed, they’re at least partly bluff.

Oregonians shouldn’t be fooled.

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    Transparency statement: I’m a volunteer with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. In this post I speak only for myself.

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      Very well said! A clear-eyed statement of PGE's true motives and tactics. Oregonians deserve responsible behavior from this major utility company, not the self-serving evasions and distortions PGE continues to generate.

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    Right on Mr. Engelfried!

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    I'm fed up. If PGE is gonna threaten our air quality, we should threaten theirs. Essentially, what they're asking for from our side is for some extreme activists to start pumping all the same toxins from burning coal through their air vents. So done with PGE and their lies.

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    It is an interesting game of high speed chicken. some interest based problem solving might work "if"; both sides would show up with an acceptable middle groud. Clearly (pun intended) neither side has done this yet, rather staking out highground around opposing stances.

    I remain hopeful that a true mediated answer will be found. Unfortunately either way, the ratepayers will be the ones picking up the tab.

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    I completely agree with Nick. PGE's "my way or the highway" approach is going to leave ratepayers holding the bag on a really bad investment. If PGE was serious about closing this plant it would be looking for ways to work inside of the law.

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    The City should've taken over PGE. They were one vote short on the Council for the majority that was needed (Sten and Leonard supported condemnation of PGE).

    This effort should be made again. There's no reason why a natural monopoly should be in for-profit hands.

    And, if the utility were public, the areas served by the utility would be eligible for a greater share of the BPA's power than they currently receive, which could greatly help in the phase-out of Boardman.

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