Washington’s Largest Coal User Unphazed by Obama’s Climate Plan

By John Ryan

President Obama announced plans for sweeping action on climate change today . They include regulating carbon emissions from existing coal plants for the first time. In the Northwest, relatively little coal is used, but one of the region’s biggest coal consumers is sticking with its plans to keep relying on the dirtiest of all fossil fuels. 

Five years after his initial campaign promises to tackle climate change, Obama unveiled a comprehensive climate plan today at Georgetown University. It takes aim at existing coal-burning power plants for the first time.

Obama: “Power plants can still dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air for free. That’s not right. That’s not safe, and it needs to stop.”

The Northwest burns little coal compared to most of the country, because we rely heavily on hydropower for our electricity. Our carbon dioxide emissions are lower as a result. Federal actions that make burning coal more difficult or expensive could give the Northwest a competitive advantage over competing regions that rely much more on coal.

But some utilities here do rely heavily on coal. Puget Sound Energy is the largest utility in Washington state. It gets about a third of its electricity from coal, mostly from a power plant in Montana that is the largest source of greenhouse gases in the western United States. PSE says it has no plans to replace the millions of tons of coal in its power mix. Doing so would boost its customers’ electric bills by about five percent.

Grant Ringel is spokesman for PSE.

Ringel: “I think we have a track record of reducing our carbon emissions. Creating a cleaner mix of energy has been an agenda item for us for a decade.”

Ryan: “So is coal a smaller amount of your mix than it has been?”

Ringel: “It is about the same.”

The Washington Department of Ecology says the state’s overall greenhouse gas emissions stayed about the same in 2011. Emissions from electric utilities jumped 6 percent.

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