TransAlta agreement shows the power of compromise

One of the major environmental questions of the 2011 legislative session was the future of TransAlta's coal-powered electrical plant on the Thurston/Lewis county line.

Environmentalists, led by the Sierra Club, have called for a hasty shutdown, or conversion of the plant to natural gas. They say the plant, which employs hundreds of workers at family-wage jobs, is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state. The coal plant is a major factor in the haze that shrouds Mount Rainier in clear weather.

With environmentalists pushing for a 2015 end to coal-burning at TransAlta, a full 10 years ahead of Gov. Chris Gregoire’s plan, there was a real question about TransAlta’s future and with it the future of 300 families who rely on its production.

The Olympian’s editorial board last month called on Gregoire to convene a group of stakeholders to iron out a compromise.

We called on Gregoire to pull the parties together and instruct them to work out their differences and come to an agreement. “TransAlta must be at the table, but so should the environmental community, the state Department of Ecology, clean air regulators and legislators,” we said. “All must be willing to compromise, then set a realistic timeline to convert from coal to natural gas or to have environmental safeguards in place at the plant to stop the toxic emissions.”

Last week, Gregoire announced that an agreement has been reached and incorporated into Senate Bill 5769 which promptly passed the state Senate on a vote of 36-13. Importantly, Sen. Dan Swecker, R-Rochester, whose 20th Legislative District includes the coal plant and many of its workers, voted in support of the compromise legislation.

That bodes well for passage in the state House of Representatives.

The fact that the environmental lobby and TransAlta both support the compromise, along with labor union leaders, the governor and lawmakers, signals that a reasonable middle ground has been achieved.

“What a proud day for the Centralia community, and all of Washington state,” Gregoire said in announcing the agreement. “I congratulate all of the parties involved who worked in good faith, and spent countless hours to achieve this agreement. This compromise promises cleaner air for our future, while providing the necessary time to ensure economic stability, job protection and enough power on the grid to keep our homes and businesses running. I encourage the Legislature to take timely action to ensure this agreement moves forward.”

TransAlta president and CEO Stephen Snyder said, “We’re pleased to see all parties agree on legislation that balances the interests of jobs, the economy, energy and the environment. This legislation meets our commitment to a low-carbon future through transition from coal to gas in Washington, significantly reduces our environmental risk and allows us to provide fair shareholder value through favorable long-term contracts while protecting jobs and the economy of the local community.”

In 2009, Gregoire signed an executive order directing the Department of Ecology to work with TransAlta to establish an agreed order that would apply the greenhouse gas emissions performance standards by no later than December 31, 2025. The new agreement moves up the performance standards for one of two boilers to Dec. 31, 2020 and the other boiler on Dec. 31, 2025.

Under the agreement:

 • TransAlta will be allowed in the interim to sell coal power under long-term contracts within Washington – which will give the company the financial stability needed to transition to a cleaner source of energy.

 • Performance of the plant’s two coal boilers will be measured against the standard for new and modified power plants, which will require the boilers to shut down.

 • In 2013, TransAlta will install additional air pollution control technology to further reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides at the plant.

 • TransAlta agrees to contribute $30 million in a community investment fund to help with energy-efficiency projects, as well as $25 million in an energy-technology transition fund, which must be spent on supporting innovative energy technologies and companies in Washington state.

“This is a giant step forward toward a healthier and safer Washington, free from coal,” said Bruce Nilles, Deputy Conservation Director with the Sierra Club. “We are leaving coal pollution in the past as we continue building the clean energy economy of today.

The agreement is testimony to the power of compromise. SB 5769 merits quick passage in the state House and Gregoire’s signature into law.