the film
Commentaries and editorials

Environment Could Take a Hit

by Robert McClure
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 15, 2001

Pollution laws eased

For three years, the city of Tacoma sought permission to produce power by burning discarded roofing shingles, waste oil and other fuels, which environmentalists oppose because the material might contain polychlorinated biphenyls or other toxins.

But on Jan. 26, nine days after rolling blackouts hit California, Gov. Gary Locke issued an emergency order allowing Tacoma to start regular burning, at least until the power crunch eases.

"It's ridiculous," fumed Laurie Valeriano of the Washington Toxics Coalition. "We think they're just using the energy problem to circumvent the rules and the public permitting process."

To environmentalists, Tacoma's sudden success is just one of several setbacks as a seeming desperation for electricity grips the region. Other items on their list:

"It's a pretty ugly situation," said Mark Glyde, communications director of the NW Energy Coalition, an organization of environmental, civic and consumer groups and publicly owned utilities. "It's pretty clear that we're sacrificing our environmental laws in the face of this crisis."

That's the short-term outlook. What will this winter's energy crunch mean in the long run? Could today's shortage spur a renaissance of interest in renewable, non-polluting energy sources? That was part of the story in the early 1970s, when an oil embargo by Middle East states left Americans with short gasoline supplies.

Or will this year's high prices for electricity spur drilling for oil and gas, and new air-polluting power plants?

It might be the latter, judging by the reaction of those who build power plants or pump oil and gas from the ground. Take the American Petroleum Institute, which warned the Clinton administration that low oil and natural gas prices were discouraging exploration and setting the stage for a price spike.

"We articulated this point two years ago, and we're very optimistic that it's now gotten the appropriate level of attention," said John Felmy, the trade group's chief economist. "Now people are really noticing."

The conventional wisdom is that current high prices, combined with a pro-drilling stance by the new Bush administration, will spur a big push of exploration for natural gas.

And Bush has done little to dispel this idea, at the same time sending out signals that his administration may ease air pollution rules to moderate power prices -- despite that campaign promise to the contrary.

In the campaign, a Bush policy paper promised, "Governor Bush is committed to doing for the country what he has done for Texas to improve air quality." It described an approach that many environmentalists and utilities endorse: comprehensive limits on the emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury and carbon dioxide.

Environmentalists like this because it means less pollution. It's attractive to many utilities because they get a single, essentially immutable set of pollution reduction requirements instead of what they describe as targets that shift from one year to the next.

"It was the one area that Bush could claim legitimately, at least on paper, to have a stronger environmental policy than (Vice President Al) Gore," said Mark Wenzler of the National Environmental Trust.

But Bush's words just days before his election took the wind out environmentalists' sails.

"His immediate impulse about California was to go after the Clean Air Act ... for reasons that have nothing to do with the Clean Air Act," Wenzler said.

Environmentalists also are girding for a battle over whether nuclear energy should have a new emphasis. In Congress, House and Senate leaders are working with Bush on an energy policy that will emphasize "clean-burning" coal, increased drilling and nuclear energy.

Although it's highly unlikely that any old nuclear plants could be restarted, the nuclear power industry is advocating tax breaks that would encourage construction of new plants.

"It's a belief of many industry leaders that there will be new nuclear plants built in the U.S. in the next five or 10 years," said Mitch Singer, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade group.

Polling by the group suggests that the California power meltdown -- perhaps combined with price increases for heating oil and gasoline in some parts of the country last year -- helped soften public opinion about nuclear power: In January, 51 percent of Americans agreed that "we should definitely build more nuclear energy plants," up from 42 percent 15 months earlier. The biggest change of heart came in the West, where the number giving the OK to new nuclear plants went from a third of those responding to just over half.

"There's a growing consensus by the nation that this needs to be part of our energy portfolio," Singer said.

In Olympia, those who favor conservation and a new push for renewable energy sources over building more power plants also will have their hands full.

As part of a package of legislation responding to the power shortages, House Energy Committee co-Chairman Larry Crouse, R-Spokane, is pushing bills designed to encourage new power plant construction. One would grant tax breaks for new plants. The message, Crouse said: "Any (power) generation, come and site here. Bottom line, we want you to site. It's a very aggressive, broad-based bill."

Another measure would "reduce the roadblocks" that Crouse says have been erected by the state's Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council. The agency was set up during the energy shortage of the '70s to expedite construction of power plants, particularly the ill-fated nuclear facilities of the Washington Public Power Supply System.

Facing off against this is a Democratic thrust aimed at requiring that renewable and non-polluting energy sources such as wind and geothermal make up a certain percentage of the power supply for Washington utilities.

"We've been victimized in Washington state because we haven't spread our risk among renewables. We've put all our eggs in the gas and hydropower basket," said Rep. Erik Poulsen, D-West Seattle, co-chairman of the Energy Committee. "It will be controversial in that it is a government mandate ... but it also holds the most hope for bringing down prices and making sure that new power generation that's built in Washington is good for air quality, good for water quality.

"It's the ultimate green piece of legislation to make sure we're investing in the right kind of power."

Words like that send hearts racing among environmentalists, who have been pining for a new push for renewables. With the world's largest wind-power production facility being built on the Oregon-Washington border, and the cost of wind power looking increasingly competitive with traditional power sources, they wonder whether this decade's power crunch will help their cause.

"I sort of feel like I've died and gone to heaven," said Tom Gray, communications director for the American Wind Energy Association, who has worked to boost wind power for a quarter century.

"We're getting a lot of attention now, and it seems like we're in the right place at the right time. It's been a long, tough battle against increasingly difficult economics for 15 years now."

Said Wenzler of the National Environmental Trust: "There's a good deal of optimism that this issue is going to be in the forefront of environmental issues."

Robert McClure
Environment Could Take a Hit
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 15, 2001

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation