Coal is a big part of our future in Washington

Political

Columnist

There’s a move afoot in the United States to eliminate coal as a source of energy. Opponents prefer cleaner renewable energy, but coal provides more than half of our nation’s electricity and will for at least the next 20 years. There won’t be enough alternative energy for decades — if ever — to replace it.

For example, Sen. Craig Pridemore (D-Vancouver) is sponsoring a bill that singles out the TransAlta coal-fired power plant near Centralia, a facility that provides enough electricity to heat and light 1,123,200 homes. Pridemore wants to repeal tax incentives granted to TransAlta and force the company to repay anti-pollution tax credits it received to install $235 million in pollution controls.

Pridemore says the anti-pollution tax credits were given to the company when TransAlta operated the mine adjacent to its 1,404-megawatt power plant. When the mine closed, Pridemore says, the reason for tax incentives vanished. However, there are more than 600 family-wage jobs that depend directly on the power plant, and the $10 million Pridemore sets aside for retraining displaced workers won’t guarantee they will find replacement jobs, especially in this economy.

That is the wrong approach. Driving a coal-fired power plant out of business will create a gaping hole in our energy grid, cost jobs and jeopardize a sufficient supply of affordable electricity for our homes, hospitals and factories. Instead, lawmakers should help coal plants develop technologies to eliminate greenhouse gases and other emissions.

TransAlta is already “going green” by taking stack scrubber wastes from the air cleansing process and sending it to Tacoma to be processed into synthetic gypsum. The Georgia-Pacific Gypsum Corp., which invested $7.5 million in its Tacoma wallboard plant to handle the waste, processes 35 truckloads of the synthetic product each day and employs more than 100 workers. In fact, GP Gypsum is the only wallboard manufacturer west of the Mississippi to make wallboard completely from recycled materials, earning it the title of “green” wallboard.

Pridemore’s anti-coal mindset ignores the consequences of his legislation.

First, it threatens the 370 family-wage jobs TransAlta provides at its generating facility and the additional 200-250 jobs for contractors working on plant upgrades.

Second, it jeopardizes a proven source of affordable electricity for Northwest families, factories, schools and hospitals. Our power grid is already short of electricity even if we conserve and maximize renewable power generation.

Third, the bill basically says that our state’s incentives are only good as long as elected officials agree with what you are doing. If they change their mind about things like coal, the Legislature pulls the committed support. What does that say to employers considering whether to expand or locate in our state?

Washington state prides itself on being a “green innovator.” The TransAlta plant and others like it present an opportunity to encourage “green” coal technologies — innovations that could be marketed worldwide.

According to a June 2006 New York Times article, China uses more coal than the United States, the European Union and Japan combined. India is right behind China, but their pollution control technology needs our help.

Demand for coal is growing faster than any other energy source. The International Energy Agency’s latest World Energy Outlook projects global energy demand will expand by 45 percent between now and 2030.

So coal will be used as a fuel for power plants regardless of what legislative proposal Pridemore and his colleagues concoct.

Developing clean coal technology would also create green jobs. In his New Energy for America plan, President Barack Obama has outlined a 10-year, $150 billion program for clean energy investments that would help create 5 million jobs.

His plan includes constructing five commercial scale coal-based power plants capable of capturing and storing carbon dioxide.

Initiatives like these are “made in America” energy solutions that will help jump-start the country’s economic engine.

Instead of bashing coal, jeopardizing jobs and reducing our supply of affordable energy, state lawmakers should encourage President Obama to invest some of those clean coal dollars here in Washington.

Don Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business.