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The Future of Coal

If 2013 was a bad year for nuclear power in our region, it was a terrible year for coal proponents. A widely publicized op-ed in The Oregonian by Angus Duncan, the president of the Bonneville Environmental Foundation and chair of the Oregon Global Warming Commission, titled “Will 2013 Be the Year Coal Died?” was telling. Duncan noted “Ten years ago some 120 new coal power plants were in the siting and financing pipeline. Today, nearly all have been abandoned. Thirty per cent of existing coal plants, representing nearly 20 percent of U.S. coal generating capacity, have been terminated or announced near-term closure dates.
Coal’s share of U.S. power generation has dropped from 53 percent in 2000 to 37 percent today." He noted that the 2010 decision to terminate coal combustion at Oregon’s only coal plant “played a critical role in this revolution.” 

However, it would be premature to believe that coal no longer plays a role in Oregon. Duncan notes that in an average year, 60% of the electricity that PacifiCorp’s Oregon customers who are not participating in a green power program is generated in out of state coal plants.

One of the most fascinating policy issues revolves around the future of coal exports. With the Obama Administration’s decision to develop and enforce Clean Air Act standards on power plants, coal producers are frantically trying to line up overseas customers and establish coal export facilities to replace sagging domestic sales. But, with financial support from Michael Bloomberg, the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations have launched an impressive “Beyond Coal” campaign at national and regional levels. In the Northwest, the focus has been on the transportation of coal from Wyoming and Montana by rail and barge, and the construction of new and modification of existing terminals to ship coal and, in some cases, crude oil to Asia. There are now five ports in Oregon and Washington exploring coal export terminals.  

Some respected analysts argue that the smart money is bailing on Northwest coal exports. However, it is worth noting that the US exported nearly 28.6 tons of coal in the second quarter of 2013 (the most recently period for which data is available).  That is a slightly below record levels, but it is still a lot by historical standards. At the moment, much of the coal traveling through the Northwest for export to Asia comes through Seattle and on to terminals in British Columbia.  Some argue that if Oregon and Washington refuse to allow new terminals, the coal and jobs will simply shift north to Canada.

With the help of knowledgeable guest speakers, we will explore the latest developments and assess their implications for Northwest energy policy.