Formal talks for state, TransAlta

The state and TransAlta Corp. announced formal talks today aimed at stopping the burning of coal at the Centralia coal-fired power plant by 2025.

The Centralia plant is the largest stationary source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state, producing 11 percent of the 99 million metric tons of the state’s total in 2008, according to the state Department of Ecology.

The first reduction in carbon dioxide emissions at the plant will take place in 2012, but the amount has not been determined, said Marcy McAuley, spokeswoman for the Calgary-based company.

The company will explore a variety of alternative fuels to power the plant or replace some of the energy produced at Centralia, which is about 10 percent of the energy generated in the state.

“Natural gas is in the mix, but it could be a combination of options,” Ecology spokesman Seth Preston said.

The formal talks spelled out in a memorandum among TransAlta, Gov. Chris Gregoire and Ecology follow on the heels of 11 months of closed-door discussions among the parties on how to meet Gregoire’s 2009 executive order that calls on the company to cut greenhouse gas releases 50 percent from Centralia by 2025.

A 50 percent cutback would be the equivalent of replacing the Centralia power production with natural gas, McAuley said.

The parties expect to have a draft proposal ready for public review in July, McAuley said. The proposal may require review and approval by the 2011 state Legislature, she said.

The announcement Monday drew a critical response from officials with the Sierra Club, which has mounted a campaign to make the Northwest the first coal-free region in the nation.

The year 2015 should be the deadline to curb coal-burning at Centralia, said Doug Howell, senior representative for the Sierra Club’s Coal Free Northwest Campaign.

He said environmental groups would be opposed to simply replacing coal with natural gas, which also causes greenhouse gas emissions.

“Our No. 1 concern is we have to have a meaningful look at the options,” Howell said. “We don’t want the parties going to the public with a predetermined outcome.”

One of the goals of the negotiations is to generate construction jobs in Lewis County in replacing the coal-powered plant and to retain as many TransAlta jobs as possible.

The plant employees more than 370 union and non-union workers and more than 300 full-time contractors. The average salary for a TransAlta employee in 2007 was $88,520, according to company figures.

The company has invested some $300 million in pollution controls since 2000. But burning coal for electricity is also a major source of mercury pollution, which threatens human health, and haze, which obscure views in the region’s national parks and wilderness areas.

John Dodge: 360-75444