Share story

You could argue that Washington had it easier all along, with abundant rivers that provide cheap hydropower and an economy that didn’t depend on coal.

You wouldn’t be wrong.

Back in 2000, West Virginia, with half as many people, produced four times more carbon-dioxide emissions from electricity generation as Washington — almost all of it from that state’s politically powerful, jobs-producing coal industry.

While even West Virginia burns far more natural gas than it once did, its total CO2 emissions have merely stayed the same. Washington’s emissions during the same time dropped more than 20 percent and just keep falling.

In fact, Washington has made so much progress weaning itself from coal-fired energy that our state may well meet the Obama administration’s new climate goals by doing little more than maintaining the status quo.

“What it means is, we’re in pretty good shape going forward because of the things we’ve accomplished already,” said David Danner, chair of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC).

Under the plan, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would require Washington state to reduce power-plant emissions by 72 percent by 2030 — one of the largest percentage drops in the country.

But roughly 70 percent of the state’s CO2 emissions from power plants now come from a single source, TransAlta’s coal plant in Centralia, with the rest coming from natural gas. And an agreement with the state struck by former Gov. Chris Gregoire already requires TransAlta to stop burning coal by 2025.

“It’s obviously going to be the biggest part of the solution,” said Stu Clark, with the state Department of Ecology’s clean-air program. “I’m not ready to say yet that it’ll be the only answer because I just don’t know.”

But the state has made other changes as well.

Wind generation has increased 1,200 percent since 2005 and now powers 25,000 homes. And since then, just among the investor-owned utilities regulated by the UTC, energy efficiency — such as changes in lighting, weatherization, new appliance standards — saves enough energy every year to light every home in Vancouver, Danner said.

If you include local utilities, such as Seattle City Light, the amount of savings doubles.

“The really important thing isn’t that this is going to revolutionize Washington’s power supply. It won’t,” said KC Golden, an energy expert with the activist group Climate Solutions. “It’s that we’ve demonstrated that it can be done and in an economically viable way.”

He argued that Washington, along with states in the Northeast, are helping offer a path for other states as the country reduces its reliance on fossil fuels. And the administration’s proposal, he hopes, will urge coal giants like Montana and Wyoming to work with Washington and Oregon to produce new energy supplies that could provide clean electricity for bigger populations.

“Yes, Washington has obviously done a lot of things to reduce carbon in our power supplies, but we’re not doing it to celebrate our green credentials,” Golden said. “We’re trying to solve a problem. And it’s a problem we can’t solve without national and international effort.”

Said Clark, “This shows a very serious commitment to the issue by the U.S. And I think that’s ultimately what’s really necessary to move the Chinas and Indias of the world.”

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or On Twitter @craigawelch