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We can't dismiss coal's value

Washington never gives up on Prohibition. It just keeps moving from one banned substance to another.

The Evergreen State has moved from cigarettes to booze to narcotics, more recently away from drugs (“toke ‘em if you got ’em!”) back toward booze and smokes.

Lately, Washington has found a substance upon which it is focusing its most prohibitionist energies, one considered more insidious than Demon Rum: Coal.

The goal is not just to ban coal consumption in this state, as illustrated by the push to get TransAlta to drop the fuel at its electric generating plant in Centralia. The campaign against coal hopes to deter anyone anywhere from using it, as illustrated by the efforts against proposed coal- export terminals in Longview and Whatcom County.

The effort to choke off coal consumption in China by blocking exports of U.S. coal won’t work. Trains carrying coal from Wyoming or Montana will have no problem finding their way to export terminals in Canada. The effort to end coal consumption in Washington state probably will, but eliminating the fuel from energy options comes when every other entry on that list is looking shaky.

Although Washington was never thought of as a coal state, towns in Western Washington such as Carbonado, Newcastle and Renton were built around or on top of coal mines. At least one town got its name from coal – visit the museum in Black Diamond for a look at the heritage of mining in this region. Seattle’s Gas Works Park started as a plant to make natural gas from coal.

Washington coal mining has largely dwindled. TransAlta closed its Centralia mine in 2006, shifting to Wyoming coal for its power plant. Palmer Coking Coal Co. in Black Diamond sells sand, gravel, topsoil and landscaping products, but no coal; according to a history on the company’s website, Palmer closed the state’s last underground mine in 1975, and wrapped up surface mining in 1986. But coal still matters to Washington’s energy scene. Puget Sound Energy owns a stake in a coal-fired generating plant in eastern Montana, and for 2009 coal represented 32 percent of the utility’s energy-source mix for electricity (hydro was 36 percent, natural gas was 30).

The objections to coal are many, from the safety and environmental issues involved in getting it out of the ground to the potentially nasty stuff such as mercury that is released when it’s burned. But coal’s attributes are many, too. For one, we have a lot of it – more reserves than any other country, and enough at current usage rates to last two centuries. The technology and infrastructure for producing, transporting and using it are known. Technologies are in development to improve coal’s environmental performance. Energy Northwest studied a coal-to-gas-to-electricity plant at Kalama before deciding against it, but there’s a lot of research still going on to put coal to work.

The default fuel option for adding a lot of generating capacity quickly and at reasonable cost is natural gas. The fuel is cheap , thanks to huge additions to reserves from shale-gas discoveries. But increased demand and environmental objections may constrict supply and drive up cost.

Even if the long-term consequences of Japan’s earthquake prove to be negligible, the political reality is that nuclear development in this country has been set back a decade – at least. Biomass? Ask the developers of a proposed plant in Mason County about its prospects. Conservation, wind, solar, tidal? Maybe – but for some of those, there are huge questions about when, how much and at what cost?

Out of favor as coal is, Washington might not want to so fervently dismiss it from its options. It may be dirty and scorned; it may also prove to be useful and necessary, not to mention one other quality – it’s here.

Bill Virgin can be reached at