Columns » Ernest Dumas

A burning issue

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Most of us can be philosophical if the utilities that want to build a big coal-fired generating plant in southwest Arkansas degrade the woody bogs of a half-dozen big hunting clubs. Let them go back to shooting squirrels and rabbits.

The utilities, largely backed by the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, maintain (counter-intuitively) that the millions of tons of toxic emissions from the plant each year would not harm the many rare species that thrive in the primordial swamps of Grassy Lake and Little River nearby — the Ouachita rock pocketbook mussel, the interior least tern, the black-bellied whistling duck, the wood stork or the fine complement of 'gators out there — but if they are wrong most of us could live, if sadly, with that, too. And if the investors miscalculated and the coal-fired plant wound up saddling electricity customers in western Arkansas with much higher light bills than the 10 or 11 percent hikes that are forecast, well, energy is not getting cheaper for anybody.

But let's hope that the Public Service Commission can look beyond the parochial interests to the health of the earth. If it can't, it probably will grant the certificate to build the plant.

The commission's hearings have focused on the usual local concerns, but the elephant in the room has been the planet and the greenhouse gas that is its gravest peril, carbon dioxide. Thirty-five years ago, when earlier commissions were holding hearings on whether to build the existing three coal plants in Arkansas, carbon dioxide was not much of an issue. The concerns were acid rain, produced by sulphur and nitrogen emissions, and to a smaller extent mercury, which could leach into the water effluent and contaminate fish and wildlife and ultimately humans.

Carbon dioxide is the biggest contaminant from coal-burning plants. The Turk plant in Hempstead County would belch four to six million tons of it a year into the air, and a molecule of the stuff stays in the atmosphere for 50 to 200 years. Now we know pretty reasonably that CO2 from electricity generators is the chief contributor to the heating of the planet. That is why all across the country they are abandoning new coal plants. Until they can perfect coal gasification and burying the emissions deep in the earth so that a coal rock burns cleanly, it cannot be the nation's future energy source.

Unlike sulphur, nitrogen, mercury and other pollutants, no one regulates carbon emissions now. Congress eventually will do it, perhaps by the imposition of a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, and even the electric industry says it needs to be done, but like everything else that affects planetary life nothing is likely to be done until George W. Bush leaves office.

What do we do until then? Paul Suskie, the PSC chairman, asked the lawyers in closing arguments Monday. It is a good question whether the PSC can even consider the effects of CO2 in the site case under a narrow reading of the environmental impact law that guides it because neither state nor federal law or rules prescribe a standard for it. But the U. S. Supreme Court in the spring gave regulators everywhere a leg to stand on when it ruled that CO2 should be considered a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. The Bush administration had insisted that it was not.

The PSC's own staff says Southwestern Electric Power Co., the chief applicant for the permit, has shown that the plant will meet all current environmental standards, that the opponents had proved nothing and that the commission must grant the permit.

Other states are canceling plants, sometimes at the behest of the governor, or else utilities are abandoning them for business concerns. But last week the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, taking inspiration from the Supreme Court, took the issue head-on. It became the first regulatory agency to halt a generating plant over concerns about greenhouse gases, a good precedent for the Arkansas PSC. Republican lawmakers in Kansas are talking about abolishing the regulatory office.

Perhaps anticipating that the Arkansas commission might be coddling such heretical ideas as the Kansas regulator, SWEPCO's lead attorney asked the commissioners to put the CO2 emissions from the Turk plant into perspective. It would produce 4 million tons of it a year while Arkansas coal plants, dirtier than the one proposed, already are puffing more than 28 million tons into the air and the industry as a whole in the United States produces 6 billion tons. The Turk plant would increase CO2 from power plants by a mere six one-hundredths of one percent. So what would Arkansas be gaining by removing so little poison from the atmosphere when there's so much already going up there?

So here is the moral case for the state: If you can be only slightly virtuous, is it better to be marginally evil?

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