Columnist Ernest Dumas sat in on closing arguments in the SWEPCO power plant case this morning. His report is on the jump. Might the PSC surprise us and look past the staff's shilling for the power company?
The attorney general’s office, the staff of the Public Service Commission and attorneys for SWEPCO and intervenors took their final shots on the company’s proposed coal-fired power plant in Hempstead County Monday morning and left it in the hands of the three commissioners, who would have to be characterized as skeptical or at least quizzical.
The intervenors, headed by a hunting club near the plant site, said the company had failed to meet the environmental impact requirements of the law, but beyond that Frederick W. Addison III of Dallas, their lead attorney, urged the commissioners to, in effect, skip over all the technical stuff and just reject pulverized coal as a future power generator, just as other states are doing. “The day of pulverized coal must end,” he said. The country, and the company, must find cleaner ways to produce power that do not imperil the earth, he said.
The staff of the PSC, as it has throughout the hearings, stood by the company 100 percent. The commission must grant the certificate, said Susan E. D’Auteil, the staff attorney, because the company met every requirement of the law. She said the PSC should surrender the call on environmental questions to the state Department of Environmental Quality, in whose domain that judgment lies under the law. That department is the primary agency of government that is supposed to protect the environment, she said, and it has not asked the PSC to refuse a certificate and it has not concluded that the environmental impact of the plant would be unacceptably adverse.
“But how do you rely on an agency that won’t tell us anything?” asked David Newbern, the retired Supreme Court justice who is sitting as a special commissioner on the site case. (He replaced Sandra Hochstetter after she resigned earlier than expected from the PSC following a hubbub created here with a report that she was planning to go to work for a power company with plans to invest in the new plant.) Are you saying we should just surrender the question to that department when the law directs the commission to make that decision? he asked. Well, not quite, she said.
The attorney general’s office punted. It made no recommendation on whether the commission should reject the plant but urged that if the commission granted the certificate it attach a list of burdensome provisos that would hold Arkansas ratepayers harmless if all sorts of scenarios occurred, such as higher-than-expected plant construction costs from delays or new technology requirements for clean fuel that the federal government might impose.
At the end, Stephen Cuffman, Swepco’s counsel, urged the commission not to reject the plant on the basis of the opponents’ speculations about cost overruns or future federal requirements on carbon dioxide. If you force us to meet our base load needs by going into the market to buy gas for generation it will put customers at great risk because gas supply and costs are so speculative, he said.
Carbon dioxide — 4 million tons of it will be generated at the plant every year — played a minor role in the hearings and in the final arguments except for Cuffman’s final plea.
No one mentioned a little publicized development last week. Kansas’s regulator, in an almost identical case, rejected a larger coal plant sought by Sunflower Electric Power because of its contributions to global warming. Addison said it would be irresponsible to ignore the emerging information about coal’s contribution to climate change. Republican lawmakers were talking about abolishing the office of the regulator and accusing the Democratic governor of dictating the decision. She had, indeed, turned from lukewarm supporter to virulent opponent.
-- Ernest Dumas