Columns » Ernest Dumas

Rutledge roots for dirty coal



Grandstanding is one of the unwritten constitutional functions of state attorneys general, but it always helps to know who is in the cheering section.

When Arkansas's new attorney general, Leslie Rutledge, joined a band of other Republican AGs who have sued the Environmental Protection Agency and the Obama administration to stop them from limiting the poisons from power-plant smokestacks, who do you think were in the rooting section?

Well, sure, the yahoos who would be cheering if you sued Obama to stop him from praying for orphans, but besides them? Rutledge ran for the office on the promise to sue the Obama administration at every chance, no matter the cause or the cost.

No, the real cheerleaders are the owners of the strip mines in Wyoming's Powder River Basin who sell coal to the five Arkansas generating plants that burn it for boiler fuel; the Union Pacific railroad, which runs the coal trains to Arkansas; perhaps silently the three power companies that will have to reduce their toxic smokestack emissions over the next 15 years to meet the EPA's public health standards; and, inevitably, the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce.

National, state and local chambers have predicted economic calamity every time Congress has passed clean air and water laws and every time the EPA has set tougher standards under the Clean Air Act. Go back and check the chamber predictions of economic decline and massive job losses when Congress strengthened environmental laws in 1967, 1970, 1977 and 1990. The burdens on polluting industries were never supposed to be worth the meager gains in public health and environmental protection. But that record, from dramatic acid-rain reductions to stream restoration, also is there for all to see.

When she joined the suit that was filed last year against the EPA by the attorneys general in Alaska and 11 Southern and Midwestern states, Rutledge co-opted the chamber's language. She said making Arkansas and other states with coal-burning plants reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions would have "a devastating impact on the economy." The utilities don't say that, merely that it will cost them money and they would like plenty of time and flexibility. The rules actually give them both.

Entergy Arkansas, which is the utility most affected by the EPA rules because it operates two of the 50 dirtiest power plants in the country (Independence is 35th, White Bluff 42nd), already has taken one step to get in compliance. It and its sister subsidiaries have arranged to buy the giant Union Power Station, a largely unused gas-burning plant a mile through the woods from my old home in Union County that can produce 2,200 megawatts of power at a fraction of the carbon and sulfur gases, mercury and arsenic emitted from the chimneys of its White Bluff and Independence plants. By itself, that will not be enough to meet the EPA standards by 2030. More about that in a minute, but first a little history.

After the first Arab oil embargo, in 1967, created oil and gas shortages, Arkansas and a few other states that had generated power only from water, oil and natural gas looked at coal, which was cheap but had huge environmental risks, as Appalachian plants had shown. The legislature set up procedures for utilities to demonstrate environmental compatibility for coal-burning plants to the state utility and pollution agencies. The Public Service Commission granted permits for the White Bluff and Independence plants on the condition they erect smokestacks tall enough to catch the winds and spread the noxious compounds over a wide territory to the east, the Appalachian states.

But the PSC rejected Attorney General Jim Guy Tucker's insistence that the utility install state-of-the-art environmental equipment like scrubbers, which would sift the sulfur dioxide and other compounds from smokestack fluegas and turn them into solid waste. In those days, attorneys generalfought for the public, not the energy industry.

When sulfur dioxide in the air mixes with water it forms sulfuric acid, the "acid rain" that was killing forests across the Appalachians and the seaboard. Finally, the Clean Air Act of 1977 mandated that new power plants install scrubbers, but White Bluff and Independence were grandfathered and their production of sulfur, mercury, arsenic and nitric acid continue. But, nationally, acid rain declined 65 percent.

But the battle the past two decades has been over carbon dioxide. The great expansion of coal-burning generation quickened the pace of climate change. Seaboard states — those showboating attorney generals again — sued to force the EPA to comply with the Clean Air Act and regulate the carbon emissions that were bringing environmental havoc. The Supreme Court in 2007 said they were right, that the Clean Air Act required President George W. Bush's EPA to do something. The EPA pondered what to do until he left office, leaving the task so feared by the coal industry to the Obama administration.

Arkansas's regulators and energy industry must devise a plan to reduce carbon emissions significantly. Attorney General Rutledge wants the Supreme Court to stop them before it's too late.

Arkansas has options. Utilities can retrofit their coal units to clean up their emissions (and create jobs), as Southwestern Electric is doing at its Gentry plant, develop or purchase wind power as the Sierra Club advises, buy gas plants as Entergy is doing or build them, or else convert their coal boilers to natural gas or biomass as other Southern states from Louisiana to South Carolina have been doing. Imagine that — using an Arkansas product like natural gas instead of enriching the coal monarchs of Wyoming.

Economic devastation in the making, the chamber and the attorney general tell us.

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