Friday, June 25, 2010

EDITORIAL>>Arkansas gets Turked

If you wondered how American Electric Power Co. could sink $1 billion into a giant coal-burning power plant at McNab when it had no assurance that the state would ever permit it to operate, the big utility-holding company supplied the answer yesterday. The state’s permission was superfluous.

It was going to build the plant with or without the state’s blessing, no matter what the cost to the air and water across the state, the habitat of the Hempstead County wilderness, the waters of the pristine Little River or the plant’s small contribution to the warming of the planet.

The company announced that it was not going to seek a permit from the state Public Service Commission for the Turk plant but finish and operate it as a merchant plant. A 1992 act of Congress permits investors to build wholesale generation plants free of just about any regulation by state or federal authorities. It was a bonus sought by the coal industry.

Over the strong and eventually persuasive objections of one of its three members, the state Public Service Commission issued a certificate of need and environmental compatibility in 2008, although the company had already scraped away the forest and started building the plant. The state Department of Environmental Quality and the state Pollution Control Commission, following their ancient practice, added their imprimatur. The 6 million metric tons of global-warming gases that the plant would emit each year were an acceptable amount of degradation to the Arkansas air.

The Arkansas Court of Appeals and the Arkansas Supreme Court, vigorously and unanimously, ruled that the Public Service Commission had erred in giving its OK. It had allowed the company to use a procedure that escaped a thorough airing of whether all that generation was needed, whether the plant was the best and cheapest place to get the power and whether its enormous carbon emissions would meet new measurements of their harm. The PSC had to start over again. The federal Environmental Protection Agency, in response to a U. S. Supreme Court ruling, is moving to regulate large-scale carbon-dioxide emissions, the chief cause of the warming climate.

When the Supreme Court refused to reconsider its decision this week, American Electric Power said it was going to bypass the state regulatory agencies and the Arkansas courts and finish the plant. It is about a third completed and will go on line in 2012. It was no surprise. An AEP executive said in 2007 that if they did not receive state approval they would probably build it as a wholesale plant.

For the company, it may be even more profitable. While it cannot structure the building costs into its rate base for Arkansas customers and earn upon the investment, it will be able to sell the electricity to other users or probably even to itself at the prevailing market rates.

For the people of Arkansas, it makes a little difference either.

Each year, the plant will still belch 5 million tons of carbon dioxide, 346 pounds of mercury, significant amounts of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide into the air — the company’s own estimates.

Most of the electricity from the plant will go to customers in Texas and Louisiana. Texas has been canceling coal-powered plants right and left, but its public utility commission approved the Turk plant. So did Louisiana. Why not? They get the power, Arkansas the headaches (and the asthma). What could be fairer than that?

It fits Arkansas’ ancient role as a colony. We ship the good stuff to finer places and absorb the degradation. We are adding coal-burning plants at a fast clip. From 1990 to 2005, greenhouse gas emissions in Arkansas rose 30 percent, twice the national rate, and we are growing much slower. The pace of the emissions is about to pick up.