It’s time to make Western Washington coal-free | Guest Column

For Washington to be a true climate leader, PSE needs to get out of the coal business.

  • Tuesday, May 15, 2018 5:06pm
  • Opinion

With the federal government now ignoring the growing threat of climate change, it’s never been more important for cities and states to act boldly to protect the next generation from the worst effects of climate disruption.

Fully confronting climate change will be complex, but there’s something simple we can do right now that will drastically cut our region’s contribution to the climate problem. But we need our state’s largest utility to help.

Puget Sound Energy is the largest owner of the massive Colstrip coal plant in Eastern Montana. Colstrip is the largest source of climate pollution in the American West – belching out carbon dioxide equivalent to more than 3 million cars on the road, in addition to immense amounts of sulfur, mercury and other toxic threats to public health. If you’re a Puget Sound Energy customer, like we are, you’re helping prop up this climate-cooking fossil fuel plant every time you flip on the lights in your home.

The good news is that the end of Colstrip in sight. Half of the plant must be retired by 2022, thanks to a legal settlement over the plant’s air pollution. And last year PSE restructured its Colstrip debt, positioning itself to pay off the rest of the plant by 2027. To it’s credit, PSE agreed to set aside $10 million for the economic transition of the plant’s employees and hundreds of millions more for the clean up of decades of toxic coal ash that has ruined the local groundwater.

But incremental progress isn’t enough when we’re seeing the very real impacts of climate change. Rampant forest fires, prolonged drought and acidifying oceans threaten Washingtonians and our salmon and shellfish industries. It’s time for PSE to take the next step and commit to a hard date to get off dirty coal once and for all.

The stars are aligning for Western Washington to be coal free by 2025. That’s when Transalta, the only coal plant in Washington State, is required to quit burning coal. That’s also when King County, which makes up more than half of PSE’s customer base, has pledged to be off coal.

A firm 2025 retirement date would also prevent more environmental damage in Montana. The Rosebud strip mine, which provides Colstrip’s coal, will peter out by the end of 2024. Westmoreland Coal Company, the mine’s financially troubled operator, wants to expand the mine, even though it’s cleaned up less than 3 percent of the 25,000 acres of Montana grassland it has already destroyed.

Getting off coal and replacing it with clean energy like wind and solar is a once-in-a-generation economic opportunity for the entire Pacific Northwest. Clean energy already supports more than 73,000 jobs in Washington State, and we’re just getting started. Replacing the coal that makes up 37 percent of PSE’s energy mix is going to keep local workers employed in manufacturing and installation for many years.

As elected officials in Western Washington, our constituents are calling upon us to work together as a region, take positive action on climate change, build the economy of the future, and clean up the spoils of the fossil fuel industry. It just makes sense. The time for action is now. It’s time for PSE to get off coal.

Nathaniel Jones is the mayor pro-tem of Olympia, Michael Lilliquist is a Bellingham City Councilmember and Jay Arnold is Deputy Mayor of Kirkland.

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Don C. Brunell is a regional columnist.