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Washington’s Largest Coal User Unfazed by Obama’s Climate Plan

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

President Barack Obama’s wide-ranging plan for action on climate change, announced Tuesday at Georgetown University, includes regulating carbon emissions from existing coal-burning power plants for the first time. In the Pacific Northwest, relatively little coal is used, but one of the region’s biggest coal consumers is sticking with its plans to keep relying on the dirtiest of all fossil fuels.“Power plants can still dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air for free,” Obama said. “That’s not right. That’s not safe, and it needs to stop.”

Because the Northwest relies heavily on hydropower for its electricity, the region burns little coal, and emits little carbon, compared with most of the country. The typical Washington state resident has a carbon footprint about a third lower than the typical American.

Federal actions that make burning coal more difficult or expensive could give the Northwest a competitive advantage over coal-dependent regions.

But some Northwest utilities do rely heavily on coal, including Puget Sound Energy, the largest utility in Washington state. PSE gets about a third of its electricity from coal, mostly from a power plant in Colstrip, Mont., which is the largest source of greenhouse gases in the western United States.  

To power a region known for its interest in environmental sustainability, Puget Sound Energy burns an estimated 4 million tons of coal a year, according to Sightline Institute.

In May, PSE’s latest long-range plan said the utility has no plans to replace the millions of tons of coal in its power mix. Doing so would boost its customers’ electric bills by about 5 percent.

“Five percent increase is a very serious issue for some customers,” PSE spokesman Grant Ringel said on Tuesday. “For some customers, I think they would find [not using coal] would be well worth 5 percent more on their electric bill.”

Seattle City Light, the publicly owned utility in Washington’s largest city, has largely stopped buying coal-fired electricity and claims to provide “carbon-neutral” power to all its customers.

Ringel said PSE would not take similar steps unilaterally. “We answer to our customers, and we answer to our regulators,” he said.

Ringel said PSE has invested heavily in energy efficiency and in renewable energy sources like wind power. “I think we have a track record of reducing our carbon emissions,” he said. “Creating a cleaner mix of energy has been an agenda item for us for a decade.”

Even so, Ringel said the share of electricity that PSE gets from burning coal is “about the same” as it has been in the past.

Washington state’s overall greenhouse gas emissions stayed about the same in 2010, compared with the year before, according to figures released to KUOW on Tuesday by the Washington Department of Ecology. Carbon emissions from cars and trucks—the biggest climate polluters in the state—fell as people drove fewer miles. But emissions from the state’s electric utilities, dominated by Puget Sound Energy, jumped 6 percent.

Year started with KUOW: 2009