Illustration by Dave Neeson

ENVIRONMENTALISTS SAY the state's largest energy provider is trying to duck green energy standards with a new plan for the Boardman coal plant.

While Oregon styles itself as the sustainability state, about 40 percent of its energy comes from coal—much of which comes from Portland General Electric's (PGE) coal plant in Boardman, Oregon.

The plant in Boardman has become a hot topic in the gubernatorial race, with both Democratic primary candidates discussing moving the state off coal. But the state has not set a mandatory closure date for the coal plant. PGE says it will close Boardman—the only question is when.

Now, PGE wants to install some environmental upgrades and close the plant by as late as 2040. But the Sierra Club is agitating to close Boardman in just four years, and thinks the so-called environmental upgrades will just delay what's best for Oregonians' health: Boardman's closure.

The coal plant's contrast to Oregon's renewable energy industry is stark: While PGE held tense meetings last week in the small Eastern Oregon town to discuss regulations and shutting down the coal plant, the Hillsboro campus of solar panel company SolarWorld announced on Friday, May 7, that it will soon hire 350 more workers.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) estimates that Boardman pours 250-350 pounds of mercury into the atmosphere every year, making it the leading emitter of mercury in Oregon, along with 10,349 tons of nitrogen oxide and 417 tons of particulate matter.

The Boardman plant is also allowed to have higher emissions than newer coal plants in the state, because it filed to start construction in 1975, before the feds passed stricter nationwide Clean Air Act rules. The Sierra Club disputes this exemption, and is currently suing Boardman over the difference of opinion.

Last spring, the DEQ laid out some options for the plant. In order to stay open until 2040, Boardman would have to install $510 million in environmental upgrades. But now PGE is back in negotiations with the DEQ, hoping it will rubberstamp a plan to install only $40 million of environmental controls, and then close the coal plant in 2020.

That's raised red flags at the Sierra Club.

"PGE has managed to be the largest polluter in the state for 30 years. We don't want another decade of dirty air," says Cesia Kearns, the local organizer for the Sierra Club's Move Beyond Coal campaign, which wants the plant closed in 2014.

"It's better overall for public health to phase out the plant sooner," says Kearns.

Though the cost of shutting down dirty coal could slap ratepayers, PGE's financial analysis shows that closing the plant in 2014 could actually be cheaper than running it through 2040, if the federal government passes a carbon tax. Without one, PGE says closing the plant in 2040 will be $200 million cheaper than closing it as soon as possible.

What will replace the energy Oregon currently gets from coal is up for debate. Environmentalists would prefer to see PGE pursue an aggressive scheme of energy efficiency and investment in renewable energies, while PGE is stressing switching to natural gas, while using some wind power and biomass energy.

PGE spokesman Steve Corson says shutting down in 2014 would be too fast a change to find additional power resources. PGE is in the middle of building a natural gas plant not far from Boardman, but that's just to meet current demand. Additionally, PGE has a new wind farm in the Columbia Gorge's Biglow Canyon that can produce 65 megawatts more power daily than Boardman. But wind energy is less reliable than coal, says Corson.

He sees PGE's plan as a good compromise: install $40 million worth of environmental controls and then shut down in 2020.

Also at stake are the 110 full-time and 250 seasonal workers who staff the Boardman plant. Whether PGE would place those workers into new jobs at the gas plant or wind farm is up in the air.

"A 2020 shutdown gives us 10 years to work out the jobs question," says Corson.

"I have no interest in dismissing the consequences that would come with the plant shutting down," says the Sierra Club's Kearns, about the potential job loss for the town of Boardman. Kearns went on to say that even if the plant shuts down in 2040, it would just be the next generation of coal plant workers who are out of a job.

So, since solar's future in Oregon is looking bright, what about spending those 10 years building a solar plant to rival Boardman?

"Solar, at the level of the Boardman plant, would be prohibitively expensive," says Corson.

Following public meetings in Portland and Boardman this past month, which packed both sides with supporters, the DEQ will decide within weeks whether to approve PGE's new plan.

This article originally stated that the Sierra Club would drop its lawsuit against PGE if Boardman closed in 2014. In fact, the Sierra Club says it is not guaranteed to drop its lawsuit. The error has been removed.