Tuesday, July 26, 2011

EDITORIAL >>Coal plant still bad idea

American Electric Power Co., the giant Ohio holding company, knocked down another domino this week in its march to build a coal-burning power plant in southwest Arkansas. It reached a settlement with the rich members of a private hunting club who own 18,000 acres near the site of the plant, and the club withdrew from a lawsuit that seeks to stop the plant.

The holding company promised the landowners they would build only one giant plant in the area and that if someone comes up with a failsafe and economical way to take the poisons out of coal emissions, they will install the technology at the plant.

Now, only one domino remains: the public interest. You would think that the public’s interest in a clean, safe environment would be paramount, not the hobby interest of a few big landowners, but it rarely works out that way. It has been the rich sportsmen whose arguments have sometimes gotten the attention of the courts and regulators.

The Arkansas Audubon Society and the Sierra Club remain in the case. They said they were not settling. Their interest is preventing 6 to 10 million tons of carbon dioxide and tons of other greenhouse gases from being pumped into the atmosphere every year and protecting the air, land and streams from more mercury and ash. Aside from one member of the state Public Service Commission and perhaps a few members of Arkansas appellate courts, those dangers have not elicited much concern. Neither state nor federal regulatory agencies have set standards for all greenhouse-gas emissions yet, so the courts have not displayed much concern either. Maybe the 8th U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where the case now rests, or the federal district court at Little Rock, where it may return, will recognize the little matter of public health as a legitimate legal question.

In this summer of record-setting heat and drought, you might expect heightened concern about generating still more atmospheric gases that create and trap heat at the earth’s surface. No, we are not saying global warming is responsible for every heat wave, drought or heavy winter snowfall (the product of atmospheric moisture), but it does increase the odds of extreme weather events every year. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its decennial report on U. S. temperatures last month. The average went up half a degree over the 10 years. Arkansas farmers are realizing longer growing seasons every year, which was supposed to be the good part of global warming, but the severe drought interruptions are offsetting the gains.

So why would you want to permit another six to 10 million tons of CO2 in the air annually if it were not necessary? The electricity, after all, is destined mainly for Texas, which like a number of states stopped the construction of new coal plants there. There is ample and cleaner power to be had across the grid when the American Electric subsidiary and the electric cooperatives reach capacity. They could buy it from the big gas-powered merchant plant at El Dorado.

The AEP subsidiary, Southwestern Electric, and Arkansas cooperatives sought permission from Arkansas regulators to build the plant six years ago and then proceeded to start building it before the state Public Service Commission, the state Pollution Control and Ecology Commission, the Army Corps of Engineers or the courts said it was permissible. Whenever there was a ruling that the companies had not complied with the law, they simply took another route. The 600-megawatt facility, called the John W. Turk Plant, is now going to be a merchant plant, putting it outside the state’s regulatory reach and the jurisdiction of state courts.

The Audubon Society and the Sierra Club don’t carry the clout of a handful of rich sportsmen, but maybe their ideas will prevail in federal court. There is an outside chance.