Leader Blues

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

EDITORIAL >>Polluters welcome

Governor Beebe spurned a plea by environmental organizations that he declare a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants in Arkansas, saying that the governor lacked that kind of authority. The groups wanted him to stop construction of the big new generating plant in southwest Arkansas, which will cough some 5 million tons of earth-heating carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year when it starts generating electricity.

We arenít prepared to dispute Beebeís view that he is powerless to stop the plant. Some argue that the power is implicit in the chief executive because construction of the plant rests with the prerogatives of two agencies under the governorís aegis, the state Public Service Commission and the Department of Environmental Quality. Both have issued permits for multi-state utilities building the plant, though both decisions have been appealed.

Governors of other states have issued moratoria that stopped the construction of a number of coal-burning plants, but their constitutions may enumerate plenary powers for chief executives that the Arkansas Constitution does not. There are precedents in Arkansas, too, most notably Governor Orval Faubusí use of the National Guard in 1957 to stop black students from attending Central High School under plans adopted by the local school board and the federal courts. He claimed the police power to override local government decision-making in order to prevent disorder. Beebe could make the same claim to protect public health, but he would not want to invoke the Faubus precedent.

Would he if he could? He has given no indication that he would other than frequent expressions of concern about climate change. Coal is dirty but it has to be a key part of the immediate energy future, he says.

More troubling are the consistent decisions of the two agencies under his command to speed the construction of the plant. The Public Service Commission ruled first, in 2006, that the plant was needed (its power will go primarily to Texas, which has halted construction of new coal plants in that state) and that it met the requirements for environmental safety. The Department of Environmental Quality held that the plant met all the existing pollution standards. That decision is on appeal to the state Pollution Control Commission but the commissioners, who mostly represent polluting industry and their constituent state agencies, have made it clear they will go with the utilities. Although permits are ordinarily held in abeyance until appeals are finished, the commission told the utilities to go pell-mell ahead with work on the giant plant.

Southwestern Electric Power Co. (Swepco) is rushing to finish the plant before the federal Environmental Protection Agency fixes rules for carbon dioxide emissions. The U. S. Supreme Court ruled last year that the federal government could not ignore the impact of carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act. The Bush administration has dragged its feet developing CO2 standards and Congress is paralyzed by partisan deadlock, but that almost certainly will end with the Obama administration next month.

If the plant is on line by the time new standards are promulgated, it might be grandfathered and exempt from regulation.

Are we wrong to believe that state government ought to be as concerned about the health of the planet and the well-being of its people as the national government? Not here. The wishes of industry come first and last.