Environmentalism's communications problem


On Sept. 22, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported the most recent development in an ongoing dispute over the future of the Boardman power plant, located in the north-central part of the state. To meet state environmental  regulations for emissions, Portland General Electric – the utility that operates the plant – has to figure out what to do with the coal-fired Boardman plant. The utility says closing the plant by 2015 to save money it would otherwise spend on retrofits to meet emissions requirements could cause a spike in electricity costs. An alternative solution, outlined by reporter Rob Manning in the OPB story, would be to run the plant through 2020.

As the Northwest Environmental Defense Center details, the 585-Megawatt Boardman platt is Oregon's largest stationary source of nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide and other pollutants.To be sure, Boardman is an environmental lightning rod indicative of disputes ever more frequent in the West.

Coal-fired power plant photo courtesy Flickr user Scott Butner

So why are environmentalists having such a hard time gaining traction against Boardman?

Manning's report depicts a recent DEQ hearing where environmentalists in favor of shuttering the plant debated advocates for keeping it open. Supporters of the plant argued that organizations such as the Sierra Club are insensitive to the potential economic damage that an immediate shutdown could wreak.

The OPB story features a college student as one example of an activist who favors the shutdown. The student provides an absolutist position on “protecting our planet and our people.” The piece also features an anti-coal activist who takes a more measured approach. It's unclear from the report if other positions were presented, and neither of these opponents address what impact their anti-power plant position will have on jobs.

 In August, one of those quoted – Nick Engelfried, a volunteer with the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign – penned a column for the political blog BlueOregon in which he argued that PGE was threatening the state with a mafia-like “offer you can't refuse.” Though Engelfried briefly suggests that keeping Boardman open could be a gamble economically, he doesn't address the very real concern that closing the plant will kill jobs in Umatilla and Morrow counties, where the plant is located.

 That's a problem. I find it difficult to believe that two-years into the Great Recession and decades into the environmental movement, activists still don't seem to understand – if even from a purely tactical standpoint – that they must take the considerations of low-income or job-insecure Americans into account.

 It's possible that Manning and other journalists aren't doing enough to cover activists drawing such connections. Nevertheless, the responsibility lies among environmental activists to develop cohesive and compelling messages that at least attempt to appeal to workers such as the electrical engineering union members frustrated with what they perceive as environmentalists' “elitist” positions.

If there really are job opportunities in a sustainable economy, if there really can be a Green New Deal – and, personally, I think there are and there can – then much, much more effort needs to be put into getting that message across.

I wonder how much attention Boardman opponents are paying to the communities most impacted – both economically and environmentally – by the plant. A Sept. 22 Oregon Politico story described another hearing at which leaders from the two counties nearest Boardman testified to the Oregon State House of Representatives about the potential economic impact of shutting the plant down. That hearing did not include testimony from advocates for Boardman's closure – and it's unclear if that's because none were invited to testify or none were willing, but the response from representatives at the hearing suggests that such advocates will need to include a very strong economic argument if they want to see Boardman closed.

As unpalatable as it may seem to those of us with the luxury of paying for energy efficient devices, weatherized homes in transit-accessible neighborhoods, electric cars, carbon offsets, organic foods, dual flush toilets and all the other impact-lessening objects and services available, it will be impossible to secure the cooperation of those who should be natural allies if we can't address their primary concern: a steady paycheck.

I'm not advocating for keeping Boardman open indefinitely, I'm suggesting that it's not particularly wise not to have a response prepared for claims that a particular position will hurt jobs.

 While I don't think anti-Boardman activists are anywhere close to the frightening ecofascism described by Sami Glover, the Treehugger contributor reminds us that “strategy has to offer a realistic, enticing vision for a majority of the world's population.” Likewise, strategies to shut down coal-fired power plants, dangerous gas pipelines or other threats require more than anger and platitudes. As Glover puts it, most “greens are pragmatic, democratically-minded souls with a firm belief in fairness, justice and the potential for humans to overcome some pretty astounding obstacles.”

Perhaps some just need to do a better job of communicating it.

Bill Lascher is a Portland, Oregon-based freelancer. He focuses on the environment's intersection with science, business, culture and policy. 

He got the name for his Web site, Lascher at Large, from the legal column his father penned for 20 years before his death. Lascher is currently working on a project with his grandmother to tell the story of her cousin, Melville Jacoby, a foreign correspondent who died in the early days of World War II.

A way to appeal to "business" interests re: Boardman
John Gear
John Gear
Sep 27, 2010 11:42 AM
Here's a link to a petition I started that, in essence, calls for not allowing PGE to recover any costs associated with coal use BUT also calls for the PUC to give utilities an INCREASED return on low carbon energy. In other words, we'll still have to make the bastards rich, but at least we'll be making them rich for doing the right thing instead of the wrong thing that's destroying climate stability.

I wanted to see if I could get your quick help. I just started a petition in CREDO Action's community on Change.org titled "Stop Coal in Oregon by 2014", and I'd love your support. You can sign the petition in less than 30 seconds by clicking the link below:


Those of you who use facebook and such things can also grab links to the petition for your pages there.

I thank you for your help, as will future generations, if we act wisely!
Rahn Moe
Rahn Moe
Sep 27, 2010 10:31 PM
Interesting that in an article about being more realistic, whoever chose the picture went with the stereotypical 'dirty' plant rather than a photo of Boardman itself.

Current air permit standards have opacity limits which would result in the plant in the photo being shut down.

Showing that coal plants can and do operate without the black plume would go a long way towards a more realistic perception of the facility.
The problem isn't the visible pollutants
John Gear
John Gear
Sep 28, 2010 11:52 AM
The haze and NOx and mercury that Boardman emits as Oregon's filthiest industrial facility are serious concerns, especially for the degradation of the Columbia Gorge National Scenic area and for the health of the food web.

However, the biggest concern about Boardman is invisible CO2. Right now, PGE is acting like a terrorist organization and threatening to keep operating Boardman as a coal plant until 2040 (if the PUC and DEQ don't give into PGE's demands to permit the plant to operate pretty much as is until 2020). PGE is funding an astroturf grassroots campaign called 2020Boardman.com, designed to play the jobs scare out in Eastern Oregon (You're all going to starve if Oregon makes us convert this plant").

The optimal strategy is to shut coal out from Boardman by 2014; PGE could build a concentrating solar facility with a large gas turbine backup and dramatically reduce CO2 and eliminate the other nasties entirely. There would be far more jobs created and PGE could get experience with real energy diversity.
Solar *and* gas?
Rahn Moe
Rahn Moe
Oct 01, 2010 09:30 AM
To ramp up and down to follow renewables requires a Single Cycle gas turbine, which has substantially higher emissions than a Combined Cycle turbine. Since solar has a capacity factor (the amount of time it actually produces energy) of 10-20% in Oregon, the SC turbine would run 80-90% of the time vs the CC turbine at 95% of the time.
The math on the emissions means that by spending about three times as much to build the solar/gas generating combo instead of just building a combined cycle gas plant you actually produce more net emissions.
Hell of a solution you have there!
Boardman is in the E. Oregon desert
John Gear
John Gear
Oct 01, 2010 10:12 AM
The sagebrush steppe landscape in Eastern Oregon is some of the sunniest country available in the Northwest, with 300+ sunny days a year and intense and abundant solar supply in the summer when demand peaks along the transmission corridor because of the increasing use of air conditioning necessitated by, you guessed it, greenhouse gas emissions.

Averages for entire states are meaningless when siting renewable energy resources.
Real reductions at lower cost - or???
Rahn Moe
Rahn Moe
Oct 02, 2010 09:00 AM
I used the range as I *don't* know the site specific data. In the eastern desert solar panels will get into the 20% capacity factor range, so the higher GHG emitting SCCT will 'only' run 80% of the time. At a really, really good site, you may move that 25%/75%.

In the *best* case you're running on gas 75% of the time. And in your scenario, a less efficient, more polluting use of gas turbine generation.

The majority of the output from Boardman is used in Portland, so the 'peak' it isn't driven by where it's located, but where it's used, which isn't summer AC loads. Which, by the way are not a new phenomenon. Those loads existed when James Hansen was still worried about global cooling.

The usual push is for distributed generation to eliminate the need for transmission - and the additional 4 to 5% drop in efficiency due to line losses. Of course then you are trying squeeze solar output out of the west side, which drops you into the 10% CF range.

My point is that if your goal is actually reduce emissions, you need to look at the actual output from your proposed scenario, not wave the 'renewable energy' green flag while hoping nobody pays attention to the gas turbines being built behind the curtain to really provide the electricity.

You would get lower emissions at less cost if you just built a combined cycle natural gas turbine and left off all the window dressing. More math, less rhetoric.
Happy not to build a gas turbine
John Gear
John Gear
Oct 02, 2010 12:34 PM
I'm happy if Boardman shuts down by 2014 period, with no replacement at all, actually. We've grown fat and complacent on energy waste with a huge influx of sprawl throughout the Northwest creating acres of McMansion homes and shopping sprawl that is driving terrific wasted energy use. We can live without Boardman at all; if Boardman tripped off line today with a problem and couldn't be restarted for a year, we'd survive. It's the advocates of running Boardman as a coal pig for another 10 or 30 years who insist that we need more thermal generation, not me. Me, I'm willing to see them build whatever alternatives they like so long as they are not coal.
address why
Oct 20, 2010 10:59 AM
While the company is busy attacking the conservationists for hurting jobs when it is their own choice what to do about complying with clean air laws, someone should be pointing out how many American babies die per year due to poisoning by chemicals in the water due to coal fired power plants: arsenic, mercury and lead. Now who sounds like the bad guy?