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Spin Control: Inslee gets his weather patterns wrong in coal debate

FILE – In this Oct. 21, 2013, photo, an earth mover, and a dump truck move through the open lignite pit at Liberty Mine adjacent to the Mississippi Power's Kemper County energy facility in central Mississippi near DeKalb. (Rogelio V. Solis / AP)
FILE – In this Oct. 21, 2013, photo, an earth mover, and a dump truck move through the open lignite pit at Liberty Mine adjacent to the Mississippi Power's Kemper County energy facility in central Mississippi near DeKalb. (Rogelio V. Solis / AP)

OLYMPIA – Wednesday’s news conference to announce Washington would be challenging a new rule from the Environmental Protection Agency had a major “Say what?” moment.

It was no surprise that Gov. Jay Inslee was promising the state would take the feds to court over a proposed change in the Clean Power Plan rules regarding coal-burning generating facilities. Washington’s successful litigious history with recent EPA proposals makes one suspect that if the agency proposed to replace vending machines for coffee with K-cup coffee makers, Washington would sue to prevent the buildup of gunky plastic pods in landfills, and ask the court to order the agency to use shade-grown, organic, free-trade beans.

Nor was it the announcement of the “score” for those challenges of 6-and-0, which is a point of pride for Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson, pretty much on the level of pride that Root Sports announcers would exhibit if the Mariners were to string together that many wins to start the season, but without the qualification the color man might offer that they could eventually lose one.

Nor was it a surprise that Inslee would make some reference to the smoke from wildfires that was shrouding the skies outside the Seattle office building where the news conference took place, as well as the rest of the state. The optics were just too tempting.

The real surprise was one of Inslee’s reasons for challenging the proposed rule to allow states more control over emissions from coal-burning power plants, a reason that suggests either an unfamiliarity with geography or meteorology. Or both.

Washington would keep on track for phasing coal out of its one power plant in Centralia, but has valid concerns over other states loosening the rules inside their borders and generating more smoke, he said.

“We’re breathing smoke from Mississippi,” he told reporters. “We’re breathing smoke from the rest of the United States.”

Nope. Definitely not true about Mississippi and any of its Dixie neighbors, and largely not true about the other 47 contiguous states.

Weather patterns generally go from west to east, and Washington is way up here on the northwest corner, so we’re mostly breathing air from the Pacific, British Columbia or, sometimes, Oregon.

Climate change is one of Inslee’s big issues, so Spin Control didn’t feel comfortable questioning his assertion on our own. So we checked with Cliff Mass, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington who produces a weather blog and does a weekly weather segment on KNKX, a West Side public radio station. It’s required listening each Friday for folks planning their weekend activities. He’s been reading weather charts longer than Russell Wilson has been reading defenses, and with more consistent outcomes.

“We clearly are not breathing air from Mississippi,” Mass said. “I don’t think coal burning over the U.S. has any impact on us.”

Even the coal-fired power plants in Montana, which also are being phased out, don’t create smoke that Washingtonians breathe.

Washington does sometimes get smoke and dust that make it across the Pacific from Asia, Mass said. For Washington to get smoke from Mississippi, it would have to make its way to the East Coast, travel across the Atlantic, across Europe, across Asia and across the Pacific. At that point, there would be at most a few molecules of Mississippi smoke in Washington air.

Coal burning does pump out other things that are bad, like sulfur dioxide, mercury and particularly carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide mixes with the atmosphere and is a problem for all of us.

“There’s CO2 and there’s smoke, it’s really two different things,” he said.

While carbon dioxide from coal contributes to climate change, it’s only a small part of that problem. And to suggest that climate change is the main factor in the increase in wildfires that is producing days of smoky skies this summer is an overstatement, Mass said. There are other factors like forest management practices, fire suppression techniques, the proliferation of non-native grasses, population shifts to suburban and ex-urban areas, as well as the things that humans do to start fires.

“The connection (to climate change) is really tenuous,” Mass said. “There’s so much else going on.”

Jaime Smith, Inslee’s communications director, said Friday that Inslee wasn’t being literal but trying to make a point that Washington has a stake in reducing pollution in the country.

“It was a rhetorical point. Air pollution doesn’t stop at state borders,” Smith said.

That may be, although the casual observer might not have realized that from Inslee’s emphatic delivery. But the debate over climate change is more likely to be won on science, not rhetoric. An easily refuted statement is more likely to undercut Inslee’s stance rather than shore it up.

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