The Symbolic Fight over Centralia's Coal Plant
One of the bills in Olympia receiving the most publicity this year is the push by the environmental community to shut down the Centralia coal plant, the only coal plant in the state, which supplies about ten percent of Washington's electric power. We believe that carbon creates risk and that putting a reasonable price on carbon makes sense -- and this would impact coal more than other forms of energy.
Advocates of this legislation, however, have made a number of unsupportable claims. Such claims indicate that a key part of this effort is about looking good rather than doing good.
Air Pollution Claims
Advocates argue the coal plant harms air pollution. The legislative intent section of the bill finds "that generating electricity from the combustion of coal produces large amounts of harmful pollutants ... which have been determined by medical science to be harmful to human health and safety." Is this true?
We can compare the air quality in Lewis County, where the coal plant sits, to nearby Cowlitz County which is south of Lewis and is not downwind, so it is relatively unaffected by the plant's emissions. For the past year, the Southwest Clean Air Agency (SWCAA) has been monitoring particulate matter in Lewis and Cowlitz counties. In the last 13 months, there have been six instances where levels of particulate matter (PM) exceeded 15 micrograms per cubic meter in Cowlitz County. In Lewis there were only two. Lewis County's average 24-hour PM 2.5 level was 5.57 -- about one-seventh of the allowable level of 35 micrograms per cubic meter. The real issue in both counties, and elsewhere, are the occasional temperature inversions and PM from wood stoves. The coal plant simply doesn't show up in the data.
Particulate matter, however, is only one of the potential emissions from coal plants. The concern, after all, is the impact on health, which goes beyond PM. Once of the alleged concerns is the impact of emissions on cancer rates. So, how does Lewis County rank in Washington for incidence of cancer? Between 2003 and 2007, Lewis County saw an annual incidence of 472.9 cases per 100,000 population. The average in Washington state is 479.1, so Lewis County is below the state average. Cowlitz County is even higher, at 514.9 cases per 100,000 population.
A look at the data of air pollution and cancer rates shows no evidence that the Centralia coal plant has any impact on air quality or cancer rates. How much air quality improvement do we get for incurring the costs and losing the jobs by shutting down the plant? The likely answer is "nothing."
These claims are entirely incoherent. I don't believe anyone truly expects that increasing taxes on the coal plant and shutting it down early will create more jobs.
For instance, the Environmental Priorities Coalition claims the coal plant is "all pain and no gain." Why? Because "the profits from this plant go to Canada, the power goes to California." By that standard, Boeing is all cost and no benefit. The profits go to Chicago and the planes go all around the world! Are legislators willing to bet the economic future of the state on this kind of analysis?
I also need to note that we buy energy from other states, including California. If the environmental community is serious, they should advocate that Washington separate from the Western energy grid so we only get energy from Washington.
I will also provide this opportunity: anyone who thinks they can point to a community that increased jobs by increasing taxes and shutting down factories, please post in the comments. I will re-post all of them as a separate blog entry to provide more attention.
There is also the issue of carbon emissions, but the calculations are more complicated about what this means and the cost to achieve those results. I will collect the information and do a separate post on that in the future.