Proposed plant in Cowlitz County to test pollution law
Seattle Times environment reporter
When Gov. Christine Gregoire signed a new law in May to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, she called it a "testament to the unique, broad-based coalition that came together — utilities and environmentalists, faith communities and business leaders."
Four months later, that coalition is already splintering over one of the first real tests of the new law: a fight about whether developers of a proposed power plant in Cowlitz County are trying hard enough to limit its climate-changing pollution.
The dispute highlights how efforts to reduce carbon emissions increasingly run up against a growing region that needs more and more electricity.
Energy Northwest has proposed a plant at the Port of Kalama that would burn gas made from coal. That process is cleaner than simply burning coal, but it still would emit millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.
At issue is whether Energy Northwest has made a sincere effort to find ways to trap the excess greenhouse gases in the earth — a process known as "carbon sequestration" — instead of spewing them into the sky.
The state Attorney General's Office and the Department of Ecology, environmentalists and some lawmakers insist the electricity suppliers behind the new plant are trying to bypass the intent of the law.
Those suppliers — including more than a dozen public-utility districts represented by Energy Northwest — say that's not true.
Under the new law, signed with great fanfare at the end of the last legislative session, new power plants have to trap their carbon emissions unless the utilities demonstrate, after a "good-faith effort," that it's impossible.
Only then can plant operators instead offset emissions, by buying rights to another utility's unused pollution capacity, for example. Lawmakers and Ecology officials have said such offsets should be a last resort.
When it submitted pollution-control plans to the state for the Kalama plant, Energy Northwest simply professed that sequestration remains unworkable in real-world practice. So until it is, the utility wants to pay to offset emissions.
"We represent openly and honestly the current state of technology for sequestration, and it's just not available yet," said Brad Peck, a spokesman for Energy Northwest.
State officials and environmentalists heatedly objected.
"This document is not a sequestration plan, it is merely a plan to have a sequestration plan," Assistant Attorney General Michael Tribble wrote. The Ecology Department said Energy Northwest's proposal was too deficient to even consider.
Both agencies urged a third state agency that reviews power-plant proposals, the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC), to reject the plan as inadequate.
Instead, EFSEC agreed to move forward with a review. The panel plans to hear arguments about the issue next month.
"There's no good reason not to proceed," said Jim Luce, chair of EFSEC. "The first thing we're going to do is debate compliance with the law."
Now environmentalists worry that EFSEC will give utilities the benefit of the doubt and that if the utilities are allowed to move ahead without concrete sequestration plans, they may never develop such plans.
"I find it incredible that EFSEC rejected the rather explicit advice from the attorney general," said Marc Krasnowsky, spokesman for NW Energy Coalition, a Seattle-based environmental group that promotes renewable energy and conservation. "Once it's built, does anybody really believe politicians will demand the plant shut down?"
Energy Northwest's Peck responded that lawmakers knew sequestration was experimental when they passed the law, hence the provision for other options such as offsets.
"If anyone knows a sequestration technique that's available and viable, we'd appreciate them letting us know," Peck said.
Equally important, Peck said, is that the state needs more power. Even if economic growth slows, he said, utilities expect an increase in demand of 1,200 to 2,400 megawatts over the next six years — about how long it takes to get a new plant built and operating. The Kalama plant would produce about 680 megawatts.
"We don't see better options, and this one meets our criteria: reliable, affordable and environmentally responsible," Peck said.
But state Sen. Erik Poulsen, D-West Seattle, who chairs the Senate's energy committee, said the Legislature "had every expectation" that Energy Northwest would try to resolve technical issues with sequestration before pushing ahead.
"In winning the battle, they may lose the war," Poulsen added. "If they succeed in avoiding sequestration this easily, you can be sure the Legislature will put tighter restrictions on coal plants.
"As chair of the energy committee, I can virtually guarantee it."
Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Information in this article originally published on August 20, 2007 was corrected on August 27, 2007. While Seattle City Light remains a member of Energy Northwest, a cooperative of power utilities hoping to build a gassified-coal power plant in Cowlitz County, Seattle City Light voted against a resolution that authorized Energy Northwest to proceed with plans to build the plant at the Port of Kalama. An August 20 story incorrectly implied that Seattle City Light was a backer and supporter of the plant.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company