Leader Blues

Monday, August 27, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Vote against dirty plant

That coal-fired generating plant in Hempstead County, which is supposed to start sending 6 million tons of carbon dioxide a year our way by 2011, is looking like less a bargain every day. Southwestern Electric Power Co. is trying to persuade the state Public Service Commission of the need for the big electricity plant and of the environmental tranquility that it will offer all of us.

The hearings at the Capitol need to start producing some fetching testimony for the company fast. But we frankly hope they don’t. The world doesn’t need another dirty plant that contributes so much to atmospheric warming, and the evidence so far is that the region doesn’t really need the power anytime soon either.

We had a deep suspicion early on that Swepco picked Arkansas for the plant because it thought its regulators were the most pliable. It had considered a number of sites for the plant and it chose one in southwestern Arkansas, although the electricity that it would produce would go primarily to Texas. The Public Service Commission under Gov. Mike Huckabee, who was still in charge when Swepco applied to build the plant, was not known as a stern taskmaster for utilities, and the prospective next governor, one Mike Beebe, had a reputation as a state senator who was especially friendly to the power industry.

Our suspicions were confirmed when officials testified this week about why they moved the Arkansas plant site, near the town of McNab between Hope and Texarkana, ahead of all the others, although other sites ranked higher on the company’s scale of attributes. Low Arkansas property taxes made the construction and operating costs lower than some sites. But a primary concern was heavy opposition in Texas. Mayors tended not to want the belching smokestacks near their population. (Hope wants them.) Opposition to plans for 11 coal-fired plants in Texas being proposed by TXU Corp. — they were all scrapped eventually — moved Swepco away from Texas sites, so it settled on Arkansas.

Arkansas already has some of the dirtiest coal plants west of the Mississippi River. They pump 58 billion pounds of carbon into the atmosphere every year. A molecule of carbon dioxide, the chief global-warming compound, hangs around in the atmosphere for 50 to 200 years. The PSC is supposed to ponder the environmental impact of the plant on the surrounding land, water and air. It will use some 6,000 gallons of water a minute from the Little River, and its emissions will affect the waterfowl and animal habitat for miles around and add to the respiratory problems of much of the citizenry. But we hope the commission assumes a wider mission and considers that it is a tribune for future generations of denizens of this planet.

But is the plant — somewhere — essential? Experts testified Thursday that, well, actually it isn’t. There is an abundance of power in the region already. It is just hard to access now because there is not a good transmission grid. Entergy Corp. has substantial excess power it would be willing to sell, if it could. A big independent generating plant at El Dorado, fired by clean-burning natural gas, has bountiful capacity that it is not using because it doesn’t have a buyer. It would like to sell it to the Texas customers but reliable transmission apparently is a problem. But that is an inexpensive problem to solve. State and federal regulators ought to be able to do it.

As we have observed before, the new Public Service Commission — thank you, Gov. Beebe — seems to take its obligations of public service seriously. We hope the power company misjudged the regulatory climate in Arkansas.