Burning issues 

From proposed coal plants to water pollution to fallout from gas exploration, it’s been a contentious year for environmental politics.

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In October of 2008, the Times reported on the burgeoning natural gas industry and the pollution and waste disposal problems that came with the boom. Since then, a lot has happened. Some of it positive, most negative.

Gov. Mike Beebe, depending on who you ask, has been either a strong advocate for the environment or an enemy. The legislature seems indifferent at best and the regulatory system is strongly influenced if not controlled by the utilities and industries it seeks to regulate. Some positive steps have been made, but the question remains, how natural is the Natural State?

The 2009 legislative session wasn't a great one for the environment. There were attempts to help state agencies regulate the natural gas industry, although most say the efforts weren't nearly enough to make a difference. One legislator tried to repeal a 1977 act requiring utility companies to institute energy efficiency programs. And utilities defeated a bill that would have expanded energy efficiency programs that already exist.

During that same time period, the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission (PC&E) has, to the dismay of clean water advocates, failed to enact a regulation to keep the surface discharge of sewage out of the Lake Maumelle watershed, a source of drinking water for more than 400,000 people. Commissioners have been reluctant to take action on Lake Maumelle because they fear it would set a state-wide precedent for something they see as a local issue, even though the watershed spans three counties: Pulaski, Saline and Perry. Officials at Central Arkansas Water are confident they can get the votes needed if they can show why Lake Maumelle is unique and why it should be protected.

The PC&E commission also issued a highly contested permit for what environmentalists think will likely be the “last old-fashioned coal-fired power plant” built in the United States, the John W. Turk plant in Hempstead County. The permit for the Turk plant has been overturned by the Arkansas Court of Appeals. The Arkansas Supreme Court is set to hear an appeal of that ruling on April 15.

The commission has drawn criticism in the past for being a little too close to the polluters they're supposed to protect the environment from. One former commissioner, Thomas Schueck, famously voted on a waiver to allow construction on the Turk plant to continue even though he had ties to two contractors with a significant financial interest in the plant's construction.

That's not to say that no progress has been made. On the regulatory front, the legislature did give the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) the funds to hire four additional inspectors to keep up with gas drilling operations, although the agency has yet to receive the money. The money is being held up in a lawsuit over how the state Game and Fish Commission should spend money from gas lease agreements.

In another positive move, ADEQ was also able to shut down some of the state's most egregiously out-of-compliance drilling waste disposal facilities, known as landfarms because drilling waste is applied to the soil. Along with these minor victories, others take comfort in the steps made by Gov. Beebe to bring wind-related industries to the state and think those will pay big dividends in the future.

Despite small advances, though, many think that when it comes to the environment, Arkansas could be doing much better.

While ADEQ was able to crack down on some landfarms, other gas drilling-related issues have yet to be addressed. Just two weeks ago, a family in Bee Branch complained that trucks were dumping drilling waste on the road leading to their house.

Others claim that fracking, a horizontal gas-drilling process, has ruined their water wells. Noise from active rigs, and related service industries, continues to negatively impact some families and eminent domain battles with pipeline companies linger in county courts.

Glen Hooks is the regional director for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign in Arkansas. He's been working on environmental causes in the state for years, and says the only thing that's likely to spur significant change is strong leadership from state legislators and the governor's office.

“We could do a lot better environmentally in Arkansas if we had significant leadership at the top, because that encourages the regulatory agencies to do what they need to do,” Hooks says.

“You know how state government is. A lot of the time, it's all about notsticking your neck out too far. Well, the way to cure that is if your boss and the higher-ups stick their necks out a bit. Then it's safe for you to do it and you can start to look for better ways to do things. I want to see more necks sticking out.”

Beebe's done that a couple of times, Hooks admits. He gives the governor high marks for establishing the Governor's Commission on Global Warming ? even though Arkansas was one of the last states to create such a commission. But Hooks wouldn't be a good environmental activist if he didn't think the governor could be doing more.

“No one has more political will than Mike Beebe,” Hooks says. “When he wants something done it gets done, whether it's cutting the grocery tax, or any number of things. If it's on the governor's package, it's going to happen. If he wanted to make it a priority to stop coal plants, we could get it done. If he wanted to increase our energy efficiency, we could get it done. If he wanted to really push our delegation to support a climate bill or stricter standards on ozone, we could get it done.”

Others on Hooks' side of the fence agree. Kate Althoff has spent the last few years making sure that future development in the Lake Maumelle watershed won't have too great an impact on water quality.

“Governor Beebe has played it safe,” she says. “We want him to stop playing on the fence so much and become bolder. One area where he came up short was allowing gas drilling in the natural reserves. That was handled very poorly. At the very minimum, environmental groups should have been brought into the room for a discussion about possible concerns.”

But hindsight, says Matt DeCample, a spokesman for Gov. Beebe, is a very powerful thing. He defended the governor's record and says the administration always has an eye toward new developments in the Fayetteville Shale.

“When it all started, this was something that was very new for Arkansas. ADEQ has done an admirable job with the tools they've had. There's been exploration in other states and we've tried to learn from that. We've adapted as time has gone on,” DeCample says.

One area where Beebe has excelled, Hooks says, is in recruiting wind industry jobs to Arkansas.

“He's an economically minded governor, a jobs-minded governor,” Hooks says. “The environment's not his number one, go-to issue I think it's fair to say. But he's done a really good job of attracting green manufacturing jobs. I think there are three wind turbine and wind blade manufacturers either here or on the way. It illustrates something that we've been saying for a long time and that's the future of jobs in Arkansas are clean energy jobs like this.”

Eddy Moore knows a thing or two about green jobs. He's the coordinator for Arkansas Business Leaders for a Clean Energy Economy, and a regulatory policy wonk. He says Gov. Beebe has shown a considerable amount of foresight.

“The governor didn't go out and recruit three of the biggest wind turbine and blade manufacturers in the world to come to Arkansas because he's a fringe climate nut. He did that to employ people in a growing industry,” Moore says.

When you talk about environmental policies, there's always tension between the business community and environmental activists, but Moore thinks will be relieved when the economic benefits of energy efficiency become clear.

“Climate change is probably the biggest issue in the environmental community right now, but all the things I'm talking about are true even if there isn't climate change. I'm not saying it's irrelevant, but it's not necessary when you're talking about making your electricity and gas services cheaper by making your buildings more efficient. We would want to do these things even if the world were getting colder.”

Aside from stronger leadership from the governor, there are other things standing in the way to real improvement. And asking state lawmakers to “stick their neck out” on the environment might be a little too much to ask, especially in a state where many of them don't really believe climate change is real.

One of them, at least, does. Rep. Kathy Webb (D-Little Rock) sat on the Governor's Commission on Global Warming and was instrumental in getting some of the commission's recommendations passed. She also worked with the Citizens First Congress, an advocacy group that aggressively pursued a progressive environmental agenda in the legislative session last year. She says there are three basic hurdles in the legislature that have to be overcome to pass meaningful environmental policies.

“The first one is that the utilities are very powerful,” Webb says. “The state chamber of commerce is very powerful and when they're out there in force saying energy efficiency is going to cost more, it's very difficult to get our message through.”

“Second, I think that there are some very loud voices who dispute the science of climate change and that is something that we deal with. The third impediment is the economy. When it went down the tank, our issues weren't on the back burner, they weren't even on the stove.”

Getting those issues on the front burner is something Webb will continue to work for, but in the face of utility companies that are resistant to change, major progress on energy efficiency will likely meet the same fate it did in the 2009 session.

Under current law, utilities are required by the Public Service Commission to come up with energy efficiency programs, which can range from weatherizing inefficient homes and businesses to offering discounts on certain types of light bulbs. One of the bills that came out of the Governor's Commission on Global Warming was an attempt to make those programs more stringent.

The utilities, as you might imagine, weren't thrilled. And it's easy to see why. If your business is selling power, selling less power hurts your bottom line.

“The energy efficiency bill died in committee,” Webb says, “even though we met with utilities, the manufacturing sector and the state chamber multiple times to try to compromise. They wanted absolutely nothing.”

Moore worked with Webb and the utilities during the session to try to find some kind of common ground on the measure.
“Utilities were against energy efficiency bills. And one of the reasons for that was because the whole current system of regulation means they're dependent on selling more and more kilowatt hours,” Moore says.

But that's a system he thinks might change in the future. The PSC is currently looking at ways to change the way customers pay for electricity, a process that could have a huge impact on how much energy Arkansans can save.

“The way it is now, the company loses when you use less power,” he says. “We need to shift to a system where your electricity bill isn't paid based on how much you use, but on a service you get from the utility ? that service being power and the ability to use it at a set cost. Once we figure out what that cost will be, the utilities become more or less indifferent to the amount of power you use and can become more involved in helping you reduce it.”

Moore says there is still a “long way to go” before a new regulatory structure is in place, but he thinks the utilities are making a good faith effort to explore new ways of looking at how rates are structured.

Although efforts to expand energy efficiency programs failed, the session wasn't a total loss. The General Assembly did pass some of the commission's recommendations including a law that would increase efficiency in schools and government buildings. A bill to provide tax credits to encourage the recovery of landfill methane gas is under interim study.

“I'm proud of the work the commission did,” Webb says. “I thought we were going to be able to compromise on some things, but the chamber sent out emails telling people that the sky was falling. It was kind of like David and Goliath, and David just doesn't have the resources.”

And that's always been a problem, Althoff says. Concerned citizens and environmental groups will always be at a disadvantage.

“It all comes down to money,” she says. “Gas companies, utilities ? they have professionals who know public relations, they have the money to hire them and they can dedicate resources to long-term planning. A regular person doesn't have a PR department or that strategic outlook that the other side has.”

But even though the outlook may be somewhat bleak, Hooks says there are some bright spots.

“There are some really good people at ADEQ and at the PSC. I think [ADEQ director] Teresa Marks has a passion for protecting the environment. I think [PSC chairman] Paul Suskie has a very bright and curious mind when it comes to alternative energy sources. I just wish they would be a little more proactive on some of the air issues like the Turk coal plant, and try to stop environmental problems before they actually become problems.”

And that's been one major criticism of ADEQ for some time, that the department simply hasn't done enough to protect the environment. But, as even Hooks will tell you, it's hard to fault ADEQ. The agency has a very limited number of inspectors and there are literally thousands of permitted facilities throughout the state. As a result, industries end up regulating themselves and that has environmental groups worried.

“We depend on self-sampling in a lot of industries because of the reality of resources,” Marks says. “We just have to depend on that because it's a reality when you're dealing with the number of facilities that we have and that's common across the country. Every state depends on facilities to do a lot of their own sampling.”

“It's almost like we perpetuate problems here,” Hooks says. “We pass environmental laws or standards but then we don't equip the agencies to monitor those things. I'm not a fan of self-regulation. We don't let the foxes watch the hen house, so we shouldn't let polluters regulate themselves because they have an incentive to not follow the rules.”

Once natural gas exploration exploded and the fight over the Turk coal plant escalated, many on the environmental side thought ADEQ should be taking a more active role in protecting the state from possible pollution and public health issues. But Marks says the agency is constrained by the law.

‘We can only act within the authority that's given to us by the legislature and the PC&E commission, and the federal government. Our authority is limited to current laws and regulations. I'm not aware of any state that has outlawed coal plants. Arkansas has not, so they're a legal industry at this point and we drafted a permit that we think is probably one of the best permits that's been issued to a coal plant in the nation.”

With a conservative legislature at work, the laws that ADEQ is required to enforce will always be farther to the right than your average environmentalists may want. But ADEQ can initiate regulations for the PC&E commission to enforce. It just takes awhile. Proposed regulations have to go through a public comment period, multiple hearings and legislative review.
Because there are so many impediments at the state level, Webb says significant action on climate change and other environmental issues will likely require federal legislation.

“The CEOs of the big utilities think climate change is real and they would prefer action on the federal level. So some of the same companies that are fighting us on the local level are working at the federal level to get the Waxman-Markey [cap and trade] bill passed,” Webb says.

Looking forward, environmental progress in Arkansas is possible, but it will likely require two things: public engagement and major investments in clean-energy industries.

“We're at a turning point and I feel like we've been there for a year and maybe will be for a year to come,” Althoff says. “And what I'm seeing is a broad environmental crisis in Arkansas. One positive is that we're seeing some increased response coming from the citizens. There are more environmental groups and people are getting engaged but they're not communicating among themselves very well. They need to continue to become more organized.”

Moore has a different view. Although he realizes the importance of environmental activism, he thinks businesses and economic interests will ultimately lead the way.

“The environmental groups raise some awareness and it's easier for them to access information and organize now. But I think the bigger change comes when the mainstream players with resources start investing. LM Glasfiber invested $100 million in its Little Rock facility. You could add up all the funding for environmental activism here since Arkansas became a state and it wouldn't be close to $100 million.”

And the governor's office seems to realize that. DeCample says Beebe will continue to push for energy efficiency and green jobs.

“We've taken some steps as far as trying to work within state government for more green practices and pushing for energy efficiency. As the technology continues to improve and the fiscal benefits emerge, you're seeing more and more that business ‘going green' is becoming not just accepted but normal and that's an area where we are happy to be leading,” DeCample says.

While Arkansas might not be the most progressive state in terms of environmental policies, we do have something that not a lot of other states have: both natural resources and intellectual capital.

“We're not doing everything we need to do but we are going in the right direction and poised to do well,” Moore says. “We start out with good resources. If you just look at it, Arkansas is a reasonable wind resource, we have tons of natural gas and, given our location, we're next to the Saudi Arabia of wind.”

“We've also got great universities and some companies that are doing some really interesting things like making solar cells more efficient and ethanol production. We need buildings of people who are experts in how you get the most out of every kilowatt. Not just because it will save the environment, but because it will make the economy much more competitive. But the fact remains, if we don't, as a state, promote clean energy here, they will move somewhere else.”

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