Leader Blues

Friday, April 24, 2009

EDITORIAL >> State lags behind EPA

In the least surprising development in memory, the federal Environmental Protection Agency said last week that industrially generated carbon dioxide, the kind that is pumped from electricity generating plants like those in Arkansas, is polluting the earth and endangering public health and the welfare of everyone on it.

It was an unmistakable signal to the power industry and to the states that they need to take steps immediately to reduce carbon emissions from generating plants and from automobile tailpipes. The signal, alas, will be lost on Arkansas, or that is our fear and our strong hunch.

The finding by the EPA was unsurprising because the U. S. Supreme Court in a lawsuit brought by the states (not Arkansas) said that carbon dioxide was a pollutant under the federal Clean Air Act and that the EPA should begin a comprehensive study leading to the regulation of the greenhouse gas. The Bush administration stonewalled for two years, but last week the EPA delivered the study and the unambiguous conclusion: Carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases that occur far less often are polluting the atmosphere and contributing heavily to the warming of the earth. Scientific research the world over clearly shows, the EPA said, that concentrations of the gases are at unprecedented levels as a result of human enterprises and that they are almost certainly the cause of the dramatic rise in average temperatures around the globe.

Unfortunately, this is legally only the beginning. The EPA will take public comment for a few months and it may be a year or longer before emission standards and rules are adopted.

You might expect that this is the death knell for the big coal-burning generating plant that utilities are building between Hope and Texarkana, but that is not likely. The state Pollution Control Commission, which must grant the utilities an environmental permit, has told the utilities that they should proceed full speed with construction of the plant while it ponders what to do.

Anyone who thinks the commission will conclude that the plant presents too many environmental hazards may also want to bet their life savings on winning the first Lotto jackpot in the Arkansas Lottery.

The state Public Service Commission, which had the first shot, gave the utilities a certificate of convenience and necessity 18 months ago after concluding that since the U. S. government had never ruled that carbon dioxide was an unhealthy pollutant it had to grant the certificate.

The Department of Environmental Quality took substantially the same position in recommending that the companies be given an air permit to build the plant. Whatever the dangers might be to the surrounding and global environment, the utilities met the regulatory requirements for an air permit, the agency said. Our sad prediction: the commission will say ditto.

The plant at McNab will puff more than 5 million tons of CO2 a year into the atmosphere, which will add to some 30 million tons a year generated by the existing three coal plants in Arkansas and yet more gases from other, smaller plants that are under way.

Regardless of the standards and the rules that the EPA may ultimately adopt, power from the plant and, for that matter, from all the coal plants in Arkansas will be far more expensive than the companies estimated when they were arguing for a certificate of convenience and necessity. Congress will adopt an energy bill this year or next that will impose huge costs on power generation from coal and maybe to a lesser extent from less-polluting natural gas. It will be in the form of the cap-and-trade system that President Obama is pushing or from a straight carbon tax, which seems less likely.

Even Republican lawmakers, who had stuck with the flat-earth people on the science of global warming, now recognize that something has to be done. Our own senators, Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, are so far standing with the coal industry and the utilities in opposing anything that puts much higher cost on coal as a generating fuel. But global-warming concerns are now pandemic and everyone but the true believers knows big steps have to be taken.

Meantime, here in Arkansas, we are going to make the problem measurably worse by putting on line a huge coal plant that will send out the most expensive electricity those customers have ever seen. But no one expects Arkansas to be in the forefront of progressive change, do they?