BOARDMAN, Ore. — The largest power plant in Oregon, the Boardman Coal Plant, sat idle one day earlier this summer, "cold steel" in industry parlance, its dirty power no longer wanted on an electricity grid that is becoming greener.
For two weeks in June, wind and hydroelectric dams were supplying enough electricity to Portland General Electric's 830,000 customers, most of whom live far away in Portland. With increasing amounts of power required to come from renewable sources, Boardman eventually won't be needed at all. But that doesn't mean coal here is dead.
By 2020, coal will no longer be burned at the 38-year-old power plant, replaced by other sources that could include cleaner-burning natural gas.
The end of coal here will help Oregon meet the Obama administration's latest proposal to slash the pollution blamed for global warming. The plan calls on the state to cut its power plant carbon dioxide emissions in half by 2030. Closing Boardman, which gets its coal from the Northern Rockies, will go a long way toward that goal.
But 12 miles north, a port on the Columbia River could represent the region's coal future.
If all goes according to plan for global energy conglomerate Ambre Energy Ltd., coal mined from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming will still arrive in Boardman by train car. But instead of feeding the coal plant, it would be shipped to Asia, where an energy-hungry populace is reliant on coal as a cheap power source.
This town in the Columbia Gorge is a real-life example of the gulf between Obama's grand strategy to reduce coal emissions and the reality behind that policy: As the U.S. reduces its own carbon pollution, it is exporting more of it abroad.
Built in 1976, the Boardman Coal Plant burns about 3 million tons of coal each year. The Port of Morrow terminal would ship three times more — nearly 9 million tons — out of the country.
Those extra 6 million tons of thermal coal will generate energy somewhere, its carbon emissions joining the same atmosphere.
It just won't be on the U.S. side of the global pollution ledger.
Over the last five years, as the U.S. has cut coal consumption by 195 million tons, about 20 percent of that coal has been shipped overseas, according to an analysis by The Associated Press of Energy Department data. That proportion is expected to get larger as the U.S. continues to clean up its power plants, boost energy efficiency and move to more pollution-free sources of energy such as wind and solar.
For the Northwest, proposed coal terminals would export more than 100 million tons of coal to Asia per year, far exceeding the total consumption for all plants that feed coal-fired power to the region, including Oregon, and doubling U.S. exports.
"If we're trying to address carbon and we're creating a whole new export industry, I think that is problematic," said Citizens Utility Board of Oregon executive director Bob Jenks. "There's a fundamental disconnect between trying to reduce carbon emissions and creating new industries around coal."
No one knows exactly how much pollution the U.S. is sending abroad, or its overall effect on global greenhouse gas emissions. That's because no one, including the Obama administration, has calculated it.
Despite requests from Oregon's Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber to evaluate the full environmental consequences of the export terminal proposed here, including the emissions released in Asia from U.S. coal, the Obama administration has decided to analyze only the carbon released in the U.S.
Boardman presents an opportunity for coal export that's nearly unmatched on the West Coast. The port provides easy access to the Columbia River, which feeds Pacific Ocean shipping channels. It's just a couple miles from a major interstate highway, and rail lines connect the region to valuable coal in the northern Rockies.
Coal from the Powder River Basin is a special breed. Wetter than Appalachian coal, it also has a lower sulfur content when it burns. That means it's cleaner, said plant manager Dave Rodgers.
Of primary concern are its carbon emissions of about 3.6 million tons per year, an amount that could be cut by half if the plant starts burning natural gas. The plant still spat out nearly 14,000 tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere in 2013, which places it among the top 70 sulfur dioxide-polluting plants in the country and by far the worst in Oregon.
Meanwhile, the coal exported will result in nearly 51 million tons of emissions.
Still, it provides more than 130 well-paying jobs in the state's oft-neglected eastern half. That base of disposable income supports secondary businesses, Port of Morrow general manager Gary Neal said, propping up another level of jobs.
The plant's closure will erode that base. "Good jobs here, going away because people on the west side (of the state) don't understand what it means to us here," Neal said.
The port is expected to generate several hundred jobs during the construction of the coal terminal and add about 30 port workers permanently.
The plant was slated to close in 2040 but installing necessary upgrades to comply with environmental regulations would have cost about $600 million. The plant's owner, Portland General Electric, instead agreed to a sulfur-mitigation measure in lieu of installing a more permanent solution and set the 2020 closure date.
Exporting coal faces opposition from environmental groups, local tribes and Kitzhaber. The terminal was supposed to begin exports in 2012, but repeated state permitting requests have tied up the project.
Opponents of the project believe the port will never be built.
"This is not a good investment," said Power Past Coal campaign director Beth Doglio, "and we are not gonna make it easy for them."
That is the attitude that Rodgers, the plant manager, expects. He stood on the plant's roof, near the coal plant's flue-gas stack, the tallest structure for miles in the bare grassland. A hard wind pushed from the north and occasional gusts rocked his hardhat.
A former Navy nuclear submarine technician, he switched in the 1990s from rods and reactors to coal. Today, he is protective of his plant and zealous about its power.
"It's not a religious thing, but there's something about it that almost feels like that," Rodgers said. "You're providing cheap power to people that need it. That's about as good a thing as you can do."
A floor below him, the plant kicked to life. Buzzing heaters warmed air destined for the vats where black dust would soon tumble from crushers. Hundreds of miles away, coal-laden train cars began their trip west to the plant and this region's heart was beating for another season.