Columns » Ernest Dumas

Power plant peril

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Your heart does not have to bleed for the black-bellied whistling duck or the Ouachita rock pocketbook mussel to be alarmed about the coal-burning plant that one of the nation’s biggest energy companies wants to build near Grassy Lake in Hempstead County.

It’s enough just to be concerned about mankind.

That is only a trifle melodramatic. The big generating plant that Southwestern Electric Power Co. wants to build on nearly 3,000 acres in the woods off Interstate 30 between the towns of McNab and Fulton will not itself threaten human existence, and the mercury and carbon dioxide that will be pumped from it might not even kill off any of a dozen rare species like the rock pocketbook mussel and the interior least tern, or the odd whistling duck that finds a rare breeding home there, or the vast crop of alligators that still infest the primordial swamp that lies just north of the plant site.

Were he alive, my old friend Jimmy Jones from Hope, who revered Grassy Lake and its cypress swamps as one of the great places on Earth, would be as mad as the well-heeled owners of the hunting clubs that have lodged objections to the plant with the state Public Service Commission. The PSC must decide after a hearing this month whether to give Swepco a certificate of public need and environmental compatibility to build it.

But the plant at McNab is one of 150 coal-fired electric generating plants that are under construction or planned at a moment when Americans and the whole world are growing alarmed about global warming and the other harms from greenhouse gases and mercury pollution of the land and water. One plant that will puff some 6 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year is deadly enough. It would produce more carbon dioxide than all the cars in Arkansas. One molecule of carbon dioxide, the worst of the greenhouses gases, stays in the atmosphere from 50 to 200 years. The 150 plants, when they are finished, will raise greenhouse gas levels from the United States by 10 percent.

Swepco plans to use low-sulfur coal with lower heat content, which will arrive by train daily from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming. The site was chosen because it’s on the Kansas City Southern route. The coal will be heated at much higher levels to produce more power and fewer emissions, but the emissions will still be enormous. The plant will use 6,000 gallons of water a minute from the Little River.

The coal plants are planned to meet rising electricity demands, and most alternative fuel sources are too expensive or, like nuclear, time-consuming. But there are other options. Duke Energy Carolinas announced last month that it would avoid building some new plants by investing heavily in helping customers reduce their consumption. The utility will be compensated for verified reductions in wattage by helping people turn their homes and businesses into energy-efficient enterprises. It will mean big savings for customers and less pollution.

Even if it builds the plant, the utility can vastly reduce the poisonous emissions and virtually eliminate the deadliest, carbon dioxide. Swepco and its giant parent, American Electric Power, are actually industry leaders in pollution technology, wind power and conservation. American Electric is building two coal-burning plants in Oklahoma and West Virginia using new sequestration technology that pumps the carbon from the smokestacks back into the ground.

Why wouldn’t it do that in Arkansas, where electricity plants are already sending 58 billion pounds of carbon into the atmosphere every year? It would be more expensive to sequester the carbon and, well, it’s Arkansas, where government is known traditionally to be more understanding of the wishes of big corporations, utilities in particular. This new Public Service Commission, however, gives you hope.

The federal government, at least when the current administration leaves, almost certainly will place greater restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants through a cap-and-swap system. American Electric Power and the industry lobby group, the Edison Electric Institute, support such a move, although the industry wants something very, very modest. But it surely will be enough to force Swepco and others to retrofit their new plants with the sequestration technology, which then would be far more expensive for both the company and its 445,000 customers in the Arklatex, or else pay $50 for every ton of carbon dioxide the plant emits under cap-and-trade rules.

The better policy is to do right from the start.

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