Leader Blues

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Coal burning filthy idea

Every year, three electricity-generating plants in Arkansas that burn Wyoming soft coal cough into our atmosphere about 30 million tons of carbon dioxide. One molecule of the stuff will hang around in the atmosphere for 50 to 200 years to contribute to the overheating of the planet. Can you and the kids and grandkids handle an additional 6 to 10 million tons a year?

Stripped to the fundamentals, that is what the state Public Service Commission must decide in the Hempstead County power-plant case. Southwestern Electric Power Co. (Swepco) and its parent want to build a 600-megawatt generating plant 130 miles upwind from us in the McNab community between Texarkana and Hope.

The PSC will give the utility a permit to build the plant if it concludes that the extra power is needed and the plant is economically and environmentally suitable. The PSC gets to decide what is suitable for the environment. Traditionally, those decisions have been based on the local environment, and the commission decided in the 1970s and ‘80s that coal-burning plants in Jefferson County, Independence County and Benton County were compatible to the three regions in spite of the high production of dirty greenhouse gases, chiefly carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury. But the awakening to global warming means that all of us, downwind and around the world have a stake in the commission’s decisions. Our grandchildren have an even keener concern.

The decision seems self-evident to us. The permit needs to be denied and the utility and its big holding company should be told to return to the drawing boards for a better, healthier remedy to the rising demand for electricity. There are remedies. The public battle in the media is between southwest Arkansas interests who see temporary and permanent jobs if the plant is built — Lord knows they need the jobs! — and some rich swells who own hunting clubs in the pristine Grassy Lake area and imagine their hunting preserves adulterated by the gases, the slag and the mercury that will leach into nearby waters. The pristine Grassy Lake is the last great alligator habitat in Arkansas, and a refuge for the beleaguered black-bellied whistling duck, the interior least tern and the Ouachita rock pocketbook mussel.

We can be philosophical about a decline in the gator community and we can also accept the utility’s projections that the duck and the mussel will adapt to their new surroundings, but it does not try to assure us that the planet and its future dwellers will be no worse from its contribution of poisonous gases that will linger for centuries. Other states — Florida most recently — are concluding that dirty coal is not the future. Construction plans for nearly two-dozen coal plants have been canceled in the last minutes either voluntarily by utilities or by regulatory disapprovals.

Coal had become the generating future because it is relatively cheap owing to the skyrocketing price of natural gas, which produces electricity at a fraction of the volume of pollution. The Hempstead County plant, incidentally, would pump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in a year than all the cars and trucks in Arkansas. Swepco is building a couple of other plants, one in Oklahoma, that use a new technology to sequester the carbon pollutants and store them underground. It is expensive and the company insists that it is still experimental. It would be far more expensive to retrofit the plant with the technology later rather than now.

Other remedies? Duke Energy, which canceled plans for a big coal plant in North Carolina, is instead investing in conservation. It will help customers make their homes and businesses energy efficient and earn upon that investment. Reducing demand is the best of all possible remedies, for the consumer and the environment. Other clean-coal technologies like converting coal to combustible gas offer hope, though they are far more expensive than simply venting the carbon dioxide into the air. Then there is natural gas. Swepco turned on a new gas-powered generating plant in Washington County this summer. Shale gas from Arkansas soil is plentiful, and its cost is now competitive with other fuels though not with the soft coal from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, where all those coal trains across Arkansas originate. It is not merely the asthma sufferers of Arkansas but all the denizens of earth who ask for the PSC’s ear. No more dirty-coal plants.