In what may be one of the most far-reaching proposals this county has ever considered, the county's Economic Development Department is pushing an "Energy Overlay Zone" concept that would supersede current zoning across more than half of Klickitat County.
It is difficult to be sure precisely what the Energy Overlay Zone plan, if approved by the Klickitat County Commissioners, would mean for the county. There is little hard information on what the zoning would do, or why it is seen as essential for our county.
On one hand, the overlay zone could create a relative handful of badly needed jobs in the county. On the other hand, it could just as easily cost the county jobs related to tourism and, perhaps even more seriously, in agriculture. Vast amounts of water would be required to operate some of the proposed energy facilities allowed under the EOZ, and local ranchers and farmers could suffer as a result. One estimate suggested that approximately 900 across of farmland would have to come out of production to supply enough water to cool the four gas-fired plants the county anticipates would soon be built if the EOZ is approved.
So it's worrisome to read that under the EOZ, natural gas combustion facilities would be considered "principle uses permitted outright."
Also given an outright green light in the proposal are wind power turbines, the use of which we strongly support. But only a small portion -- perhaps 25 percent -- of the projected new energy creation in the county would come from wind turbines. Most of the rest would be created by natural gas plants.
The reality is, the county already has a mechanism for siting natural gas plants. It's called the conditional use permit. Of course, the county can approve natural gas plants under its current processes. Calpine just built one in Goldendale. The EOZ, however, would actually remove the conditional use permitting process from energy siting. And with the elimination of the conditional use process would go a major opportunity for public input on any specific power plant proposal.
The county should not be made attractive to energy developers based on limiting opportunities for public input. That is not sound public process. Energy developers should be required to go through the same process the Calpine plant in Goldendale went through.
It's also troubling to see that, for several months, the Economic Development Department has apparently been marketing the county as a place that can offer "accelerated siting" for energy plants. The county has produced a promotional brochure that seems to brag about a "countywide Environmental Impact Study targeted at eliminating conditional use permits." Speeding the approval process for plant sitings might be good for a few energy companies, but is it good for local citizens?
It is inappropriate to be dispensing materials promoting the EOZ before the county's elected political leaders have decided whether to approve it. Or does the Klickitat County Economic Development Department know something the county's citizens have not been told?
In one of the insightful public comments submitted in response to the proposed EOZ, White Salmon residents Mike & Jean Wellman and Craig & Teresa Ludwig wrote the following: "When any rational person looks at the magnitude, environmental impact, and livability issues surrounding such large (fossil-fuel-fired) projects, it is clear that they should have the utmost scrutiny, rather than a broad-brush approach. Since natural gas and other fuel plants and their pollution will be with this community for many years, it makes sense to approve these on a case-by-case basis, so that changing conditions and energy needs can be taken into account."
That makes a ton of sense. Ironically, it is also the way plant sitings are currently handled in Klickitat County: one-by-one, via the conditional use permit process.
Where is the urgent need to revamp a process that works, in exchange for an uncertain process that may diminish the quality of life and the livelihoods of current residents?
The Klickitat County Board of Commissioners need to ask themselves that question as they weigh how they will vote on this proposal. If no clear, positive answers can be articulated by the commissioners, then -- despite the many thousands of dollars already invested in this plan -- the commissioners need to reject creation of the EOZ.