Leader Blues

Monday, November 26, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Score one for pollution

David Newbern, the former Supreme Court justice who continually gets summoned from retirement to safeguard the public interest, nearly did so again this week. He objected to building a new coal-fired electricity plant in southwest Arkansas that will belch 5.3 million tons of greenhouse gases a year into the atmosphere to speed the planet’s warming. But Newbern was in the minority as the state Public Service Commission granted a certificate to Southwestern Electric Co. to build the plant.

How we wish he had prevailed. Newbern, who was twice called on to distill the truth from the miasma of the Lake View school-funding suit, called the decision of his fellow commissioners — he was a special commissioner appointed by the governor when the ethically conflicted third member was forced to step aside — “shortsighted” and later “unconscionable.” We tend toward the latter assessment.

Now we can only hope that one of the other government bodies in three states that must pass on the need for and environmental compatibility of the plant will view the issues as wisely as Newbern.

In the view of the majority, the global effect of the plant was just too small to matter that much when you have a chance to build a plant in Arkansas, create a few jobs, ratchet up local tax property tax collections and help Texas and Louisiana meet their power needs for the next few years.

If you can’t solve the problem of climate change down here in little old Arkansas, why not make it just a little bit worse? Even if polluting coal plants are the chief cause of global warming, everybody else has been building them because coal is so abundant.

Justice Newbern explained why not in a simple and eloquent summary of the central question.

“The momentum of ‘business as usual’ will make the necessary changes difficult for both the public and the power industry,” he wrote, “but we must turn the inevitable corner and begin now to refuse to countenance the further degradation of our atmosphere without taking every reasonable step to nurture and promote cleaner, more efficient alternatives.

“To allow an increase in atmospheric pollution in this instance is shortsighted. This commission and the regulatory agencies of other states, as well, should lead the effort to reduce atmospheric pollution by example.

“Even if the emissions to be allowed in this case, including the annual production of 5,280,000 tons each year of carbon dioxide, will constitute only a small addition to the pollution being emitted in Arkansas and elsewhere in the United States and in the world, the example we set by our approval presents an example for the people of our state, region, and nation that is unconscionable.”

Business as usual, however, is no longer the construction of coal plants. In state after state, plans for coal plants have been cancelled the past year by the companies or state regulators. Arkansas thus becomes an example not for solution but for furtherance of the problem. The majority’s analysis was faulty for two other reasons. It said the issue was whether to build a plant fueled by coal or cleaner-burning natural gas and that the price of gas was too unpredictable.

But discoveries and shale technology make gas supplies as plentiful and almost as reliable as coal for the immediate future.
The economics give coal only a slight advantage, which ought not offset the huge environmental advantages of gas. But it need not have reached even that fulcrum. As Newbern observed, the commission might have ordered the utility to invest in conservation, postponing the need for additional generation for who knows how long?

Perhaps until the industry develops reliable technology for capturing all the carbon emissions making coal as clean as gas or cleaner. Arkansas ranks near the bottom of all the states in energy efficiency. Here was a chance to improve that statistic and help the planet, too. SWEPCO will now proceed with work at the site in the heart of one of the most environmentally sensitive areas of the region.

But it will need the approval of Texas and Louisiana regulators, the state Department of Environmental Quality and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. There is no reason to be hopeful about any of them.