Columns » John Brummett

Global warming on a honeymoon



So far Mike Beebe is in a tie with Dale Bumpers as the most effective governor in the state's history. But Beebe is all alone way out front as the luckiest.

He got bequeathed a billion extra dollars and a generally healthy treasury. So he was able to cut the sales tax on groceries while funding nearly every need and many of his and legislators' wants and whims.

One of those needs was to throw enough money at public school facilities to get the onerous Lake View case closed by the Arkansas Supreme Court, which happened.

Then he had the good fortune of a Republican businessman, Sheffield Nelson, to cover his right flank so he could raise the severance tax on natural gas.

But it's been my experience that honeymoons end. Sometimes I wonder what might end this joy ride. I've come up with three potential interruptions.

One is that the national economic disaster would actually begin to affect remote and curiously immune Arkansas. That would impair Beebe's healthy revenue stream and render him unable to make further promised cuts in the grocery tax while throwing money at every problem.

The second is that troubles in the state's regulation of foster care could reveal more vivid examples of bureaucratic bungling and insensitivity.

Further analysis of those issues can await another day, as, for that matter, can a thorough policy analysis of this third potential honeymoon-ender. For today I merely want to put this potential political minefield on the table.

Owing to the dictates of a legislative act, Beebe set up a commission on global warming, which will report Oct. 31. He told it that environmental responsibility need not conflict with economic development, which is easy to say and, of course, hooey.

Those interests would not conflict only if we changed our economic model and became reliant on employers and providers who were heavily invested in renewable resources and alternative sources of energy. But, of course, our rural economy is wholly dependent on what actually exists in Arkansas instead of what might be in Utopia. We take from the land, not the sun or the wind, and we befoul the air with our pickup trucks and many of our major income sources.

So you have the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp., an association of rural electric cooperatives serving the electricity needs of much of the state. AECC is not political, per se, by which I mean to say it is wholly political. It owes its existence to rural electrification, largely a Democratic initiative nationally through FDR and a Democratic initiative in the state championed by the late Gov. Sid McMath.

AECC wants to be part-owner and part-user of that coal plant that a consortium wants to build in Hempstead County in southwestern Arkansas. 

Beebe's position is that nuclear energy would be better than coal, as long as nuclear was safe, but that coal can't be done away with immediately and, if we build this coal plant, it needs to be as clean as possible.

Let me interpret that for you: He said, “Blah, blah, blah.” And, “Mumbo, jumbo.”

Gary Voight, the chief executive officer of AECC, sits on this global warming commission. Meantime, he has his chief lobbyist, old Democratic operative Carmie Henry, once an aide to David Pryor, writing pieces in the co-ops' official magazine quoting the few scientists he can find who will say that, well, yeah, there might be some global warming, and, well, yeah, carbon emissions might be a factor, but that, well, most of this warming is natural, not man-made.

More to the point, the co-ops are saying that, well, yeah, maybe we need to switch to other ways of making electricity, nuclear and renewable, but that is going to take decades and the rural human need is now. So, you see, we need in the vital shorter term to approve this new and supposedly clean coal-fired plant.

Beebe could get caught in the ringer between his own global warming commission and the powerful political forces of the embedded rural Arkansas economy.

If forced to choose one side or the other, Beebe probably will choose the embedded Arkansas economy and the power of its political network. Environmentalists aren't going to vote Republican. But those dependent on the rural economy have voted that way before and might again.

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