September 2010

Oregon Local Lobbies for Responsible Transition from Coal Power
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With only one power plant running on coal, Oregon would seem an unlikely place for a major effort by environmentalists to shut down coal power. But Portland General Electric's 585-megawatt power plant is embattled, with some in the environmental lobby pushing to shut the plant down in 2015. They even opposed a public utility commission meeting in the plant's surrounding community to allow residents and workers to voice their opinions.

Representing 125 bargaining unit members at the facility, Portland Local 125 is conducting a grassroots campaign to urge a balance between reducing carbon emissions and the need for a reasonable transition to other sources of energy—one that properly weighs the needs of both workers and consumers. Members have attended public meetings and are busy circulating petitions and writing letters to utility commissioners and newspapers.

"If they haven't already, other locals could soon be facing the same situation that we are here," says Boardman control operator Josh Hagel, noting that the plant first went online in 1980, making it newer than many of the more than 600 other coal power plants across the country. "This is a sought-after job," says Hagel, who has worked at Boardman for 11 years. The plant, in the state's eastern quadrant, he says, accounts for nearly 40 percent of Morrow County's tax base.

"Our members fish and hunt and are concerned about the environment like other citizens," says Marcy Putman, Local 125's political affairs representative. But, she said, the 2015 shutdown date being proposed by some in the environmental lobby is not realistic. Many backers of the closure, she says, have never seen the plant and are driven by industrial revolution images of pollution, despite the fact that PGE—which is proposing a 2020 shutdown—has installed scrubbers and precipitators to reduce emissions and is prepared to spend much more. When they visit, critics have, says Putman, "been amazed at how clean the facility is."

PGE has a reputation for cognizance of environmental concerns. The utility supported the state's 2007 renewable energy standard in the legislature, requiring that Oregon's largest utilities acquire 25 percent of their electricity from new renewable energy sources by 2025. The company is investing more than $1 billion in the Biglow Canyon Wind Farm—located in the Columbia River Gorge—which will supply 450 megawatts when complete. Last year, PGE ranked eighth in the nation—and fourth in the West—for total solar power generation, according to the Solar Electric Power Association.

"Our advocacy for keeping Boardman Power Plant open isn't just about the IBEW, it's about the economy of our state," says Putman. With long lag times for permits, engineering and other technical considerations, Oregon will not be able to replace the essential utility capacity that would be lost in a 2015 shutdown.

In a May letter to the Public Utility Commission of Oregon, Local 125 expressed concern for the job security of workers employed in energy-intensive industries as well as small businesses if regulators force a premature shutdown. In addition to IBEW's bargaining unit, 25 contractors and 225 seasonal maintenance workers' jobs are tied to the plant.

Oregon's high unemployment rate makes an orderly plan for Boardman's closure even more essential. One of the new members of Local 125 at Boardman, for instance, was hired after he lost his job when Boise Cascade shut down a paper mill in St. Helens several hours away.

The IBEW's need to compete with other voices in the debate over Boardman's future was punctuated by the Sierra Club's opposition to IBEW's request that the state public utility commission hold a hearing on the plant's future in Boardman, where many of the facility's workers reside. The commission agreed to hold the hearing, defeating the Sierra Club's questionable argument that citizens in Boardman are not customers of PGE.

PGE originally planned to close the plant in 2040 and, in the interim, invest up to $560 million in pollution controls to comply with rules of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. The improvements would lower mercury and nitrogen oxide emissions and permit the burning of lower-sulfur coal.

Under its new 2020 shutdown proposal, the company is looking to make many of the same improvements, while simultaneously developing renewable and natural gas resources to replace the Boardman plant's capacity. New transmission lines, essential to delivering the new power to customers, are part of the company's plan.

Steven Corson, PGE spokesman, gives special recognition to the IBEW as one of the main stakeholders—along with economic development groups, business associations and customer groups—in helping regulators understand the need for a reasonable plan for Boardman.

PGE is under pressure to move the company's proposed shutdown date to 2018.

"We will keep working with the company," says Putman, "but our independent, grassroots lobbying will be decisive in seeing that an unrealistic date is not imposed.

"We are not supporting anything sooner than 2020, and maintain that 2040 is appropriate if the pollution controls are installed," says Putman.

Portland, Ore., Local 125 member Pat Winter, left, with fellow unionists Brian Williams and Doug Shaffer are advocating for a responsible transition from coal power to other energy sources.

Dave Richards, Local 125, Portland, Ore.

Environmentalists are pushing for a 2015 shutdown of the Boardman Power Plant that would leave large energy users without sufficient power to run their enterprises.