Kitzhaber's inconsistency

By Baker City Herald Editorial Board April 27, 2012 07:24 am

We’ve noticed a curious lack of consistency in how Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber employs his bully pulpit.

Or, in this case, bully word-processing program.

On Wednesday the governor sent a letter to several federal officials urging them to undertake a multi-year (and no doubt, multimillion-dollar) study of the possible effects of transporting coal from Montana and Wyoming to ports in Oregon and Washington.

This coal would be shipped across the Pacific Ocean to Asia where several countries — China, of course, among them — would burn the coal to produce electricity to run their burgeoning economies.

(Yes, some countries actually have such things.)

To be sure, Kitzhaber’s concerns are not the ravings of a Chicken Little.

He notes, for instance, that coal could produce unhealthy dust during transport (by rail and barge) and while it’s being loaded onto ships for the trans-Pacific voyage.

Kitzhaber offers no proof, though, that this dust would be in quantities sufficient to cause any harm. It seems unlikely, at any rate, that merely moving coal will turn Oregon into the black-lunged West Coast version of Appalachia.

The governor also points out that coal-fired power plants in Asia spew toxic mercury into the air, some of which, hurried along by the jet stream, will be deposited from whence it came.

Again, Kitzhaber cites no studies proving that this source of mercury is making, or would make, Oregonians ill, save for the flimsy claim that these “transported emissions could lead to health impacts.” The causation is at least plausible, though.

What bothers us about Kitzhaber’s political hand-wringing over the proposed coal exports is that lack of consistency we mentioned.

So far as we can determine, the governor has not expressed similar concerns about the considerable increase in truck traffic on Interstate 84 through Eastern Oregon that has resulted from the booming wind turbine industry.

In his letter, Kitzhaber notes that hauling coal will cause emissions of “diesel particulate” and other air pollutants.

Those trucks carrying pieces of wind turbines burn the same diesel fuel that locomotives do.

The governor’s attitude toward economic opportunities, and in particular those involving energy production, seems to depend on where the energy source falls on the “green” scale.

Wind ranks near the top, and coal is pretty much alone at the bottom.

Diesel particulates, though, are pretty much diesel particulates, whether they’re associated with moving coal or turbines. Yet the governor seems to fret about only one source.

There’s another thing that those two industries have in common.

They both create jobs. Based on the multibillion-dollar chasm in Oregon’s budget, it seems the state could use more of those.

Which isn’t to say we ought to trade our long-term health for short-term financial gain.

Unfortunately, the governor’s inconsistent reactions to economically beneficial proposals make it harder rather than easier to determine whether the inevitable side effects outweigh the gains.