In a recent Integrated Resources Plan (IRP) filed with the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, Puget Sound Energy made clear that the company’s “long-term forecast” for meeting the energy needs of its customers “over the next 20 years” includes a reliance on coal. The IRP, according to PSE, “is an exhaustive, research-based examination of the potential risks and opportunities we face in procuring future energy supplies.”
PSE’s position regarding its coal dependence is troubling in at least two respects: it defies the national departure from coal reliance and for placing cost concerns over environmental concerns, it is a poor example of corporate responsibility.
National environmental policies incorporate an expectation that energy companies will decrease their coal use. In his recent speech addressing the White House’s national climate change policies, President Obama noted: “We limit toxic chemicals in our air and water, but power plants can dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air for free. That's not right, that's not safe, and it needs to stop.” (The Democratic Senator from West Virginia, which is the country’s second largest coal mining state, announced that President Obama had “declared a war on coal.”)
And yet PSE intends to continue its use of coal to supply energy to the Pacific Northwest. PSE holds the largest ownership share in the Colstrip power plant – the second largest coal-fired generating facility west of the Mississippi river. Coal accounts for 36 percent of PSE’s total fuel source. Even though the demand for coal in the United States is falling, in its IRP PSE put it clearly when it concluded that its long-term energy production plan “reflects the expectation that Colstrip will continue to be a least-cost resource” for its customers.
Its coal dependence aside, PSE’s justification for its continued coal use raises issues concerning corporate and environmental ethics. For PSE, the continued operation of its Colstrip power plant – which uses an entire railroad car’s worth of coal every five minutes – is based on an economic evaluation, not an environmental one.
According to its IRP, “PSE developed four environmental compliance cost cases to test the economic viability of Colstrip under a variety of potential regulatory requirements. Overall, the analysis found that Colstrip reduces cost and market risk for our customers.” Put another way, coal is cheaper – despite its harmful environmental effects – and thus for PSE coal is better. Cheaper equals better.
As the Pacific Northwest's largest energy provider, PSE is uniquely positioned to positively influence national and local environmental policy. It's unfortunate that, at least according to its 2013 IRP, PSE is not willing to exercise its influence and shift its dependence toward cleaner energy.
Trent Latta is an attorney and he can be reached at TrentLatta@gmail.com