Columns » Ernest Dumas

Two little words

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The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, its governing commission or the whole state government would never be counted as peculiar stewards of the earth and hardly better friends than the George W. Bush administration.

That would be libelous per se if the evidence did not so amply support the truth of it.

You only have to go back five years to find Mike Beebe, who is far superior to his predecessor, Mike Huckabee, and who talks a good game about the environment, joining with the Bush administration against the attorneys general of all the other states except Texas to change federal clean-air rules to allow polluting factories to avoid installing equipment to rid their smokestacks of some of the poison they puff into the air. The Arkansas attorney general was merely being a helpful friend to Entergy Corp., which was belching about 25 million tons of pollutants into the atmosphere every year from its Arkansas power plants alone.

We'll get a sense this week if anything has changed since the rest of the world has acknowledged the perils of climate change. Audubon, the Sierra Club and the Environmental Integrity Project asked the state Pollution Control and Ecology Commission to change two words in its air regulations. Carbon dioxide is by far the largest contributor to global warming but the Arkansas air standards list carbon dioxide as a harmless non-pollutant, along with water vapor and oxygen. The commission, as it is bound to do, will hold a hearing this week on whether to remove CO2 from that list.

You would think that would be a no-brainer since every scientist in the world who didn't get his degree from a Bible college acknowledges CO2 to be the most perilous of the greenhouse gases and the U. S. Supreme Court a year ago ordered Bush's Environmental Protection Agency to recognize it as such and begin to regulate the emissions as the federal Clean Air Act directs. The EPA is dragging its feet until Bush leaves office.

But you would have to guess that the commission won't do it, unless Gov. Beebe weighs in on the side of the environment. The Arkansas Environmental Federation, a coalition of corporations and organizations that are regulated because of their emissions, has sounded the alarm that the tree huggers must be stopped and carbon dioxide continue to be held harmless for the atmospheric damage. Scores of companies and organizations will enter the case against the environmental groups.

Back in 2001 the federation was exultant over the election of George Bush and a Republican tide in Congress, telling members that it would probably spell victory for polluters' efforts to weaken the clean-air rules that I mentioned above.

You cannot find a more powerful alliance. The commission is a weak vessel, though it is a little better than it was before Gov. Bill Clinton pushed through minor reforms in 1991 to end direct control of the commission by polluting industries. They had been guaranteed spots on the commission along with the directors of six state agencies that considered the industries their constituencies. Now the governor appoints a majority of the commission and he does not have to appoint people from the industries.

But Gov. Huckabee stacked the commission and staff with industry-friendly men and they still predominate. Two commissioners have direct conflicts of interest so obvious that they cannot vote on the most serious permit issues because they hold discharge permits themselves. Huckabee campaigned for president this year as a passionate environmentalist but Governor Huckabee derided such people as “wackos” and his appointments largely reflected that bias.

Audubon and Sierra say they are not trying to stop the construction of the big coal-burning electricity plant near Hope, at least not by the rule change, but it will be seen that way and it will energize the hearings. The department must rule on whether the plant would meet state environmental standards — a majority of the state Public Service Commission has already said that it would — and the agency is generally expected to say that it would, too. While scientists from around the world have concluded that it may doom the planet, the department's own rules say that carbon dioxide from coal-burning plants and auto tailpipes is no more harmful than the oxygen we breathe or the vapors rising from a summer rain. What would you expect it to do?

If the commission does change the two little words, it might then someday begin to regulate CO2, require the reporting of emissions, perhaps set limits on it and even require coal-burning power plants to use sequestration technology to cleanse their emissions of deadly CO2. We happen to know already what the three existing coal-burning power plants in Arkansas produce (nearly 30 million tons of CO2 a year) because federal law requires them to report it, and the Hempstead plant will add another 4 million to 6 million tons a year, each molecule of which will hang around the atmosphere for a century or two and fulfill scientists' prediction in a 2000 report of more frequent tornadoes and “severe precipitation events” like droughts and floods.

If recent history gives you any reason to imagine that this is urgent you could ask the governor and the commission to do a small part and excise two little words.

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