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Arkansas: easy pickings 

Is it unbridled cynicism to say that we now know why American Electric Power Co. and its subsidiary picked a site in southwest Arkansas for a new coal-powered generating plant when its own criteria ranked it among the worst of a dozen potential sites in four states?

The suspicion was that the utility holding company knew which regulatory body in the four states was more apt to roll over — that is, which one historically is most sympathetic to the manifold needs of investor-owned utilities. The Texas utility commission had sent a pretty clear signal that it was averse to approving new coal-fired plants on Texas soil. And it's controlled by Republicans!

The state Public Service Commission voted 2 to 1 to give the utility a certificate of environmental compatibility and public need to build a 600-megawatt plant near the town of Fulton between Hope and Texarkana in one of the most environmentally sensitive habitats in the region. It almost certainly would have been 3 to 0 but an ethically conflicted member (she was going to work for one of the plant investors) was forced to step aside on the case. Gov. Beebe supplanted her with former Supreme Court Justice David Newbern, who keeps getting conscripted from retirement to save the public interest.

The die actually was cast nearly 18 months ago when the commission, then appointed altogether by Mike Huckabee, ruled unanimously that the utility's subsidiary, Southwestern Electric Power Co., needed the plant, or at least would need the 600 megawatts in four or five years to meet the growing demands of its customers, mostly in Texas and Louisiana. The present commission had merely to say whether the amount of environmental destruction from the plant was acceptable.

Arkansas's existing three coal-powered power plants each year belch 31,762,000 tons of carbon dioxide, the chief cause of planet warming, into the atmosphere — the figure is for 1999, the last that I could find. That ought to be enough poison from Arkansas. A molecule of CO2 stays in the atmosphere from 50 to 200 years. The commission said another 5 million tons a year from the plant at Fulton would be an acceptable level of harm.

It was Newbern who dissented and mourned that the commission was not setting an example by being good stewards of the planet and its future inhabitants. He made the case for saying no as eloquently as it could be made.

“The momentum of ‘business as usual' will make the necessary changes difficult for both the public and the power industry,” he said, “but we must turn the inevitable corner and begin now to refuse to countenance the further degradation of our atmosphere without taking every reasonable step to nurture and promote cleaner, more efficient alternatives. To allow an increase in atmospheric pollution in this instance is shortsighted.”

Actually, saying no would not be flouting business as usual nor would it be a fresh example. Facing opposition from environmental groups and skepticism from Texas regulators, the utility formerly known as TXU Corp. canceled plans for eight coal-fired plants last month. Oklahoma and North Carolina regulators denied permits for coal plants. A month ago, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment denied air-quality permits for two coal plants and said no more would be allowed in Kansas. Utilities abandoned plans for three plants in Florida owing to opposition from the Republican governor to more coal plants. “There's a lot of different ways to skin the cat and still provide the energy that Floridians need and deserve without harming Florida,” he said.

The Arkansas commissioners said they worried, too, about contributing to climate change but they said it would be only a fraction of one percent of what is already being dumped into the air in the United States. If you can't work a miracle, why perform mere good works?

While the economy of natural-gas generation may be roughly the same as coal, Chairman Paul Suskie said, no one can be sure. Everyone agrees that Congress should and will begin to regulate CO2 by either heavily taxing carbon or creating a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions. But it probably will not adopt anything so drastic that it would make coal terribly more costly to use.

He closed a long ruling with a plaintive call for Washington and the world to do their solemn duty and do something about CO2 and global warming sooner rather than later. He was genuine but it sounded like “stop us before we poison again.”

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