Here we go again, another fruitless skirmish in the great War on Coal, coming to a battlefield near you.
President Obama had not even announced the new rule requiring power plants to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions from 2005 levels by an average of a third during the next 15 years than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, from the big coal state of Kentucky, again denounced Obama’s “War on Coal,” as if the president was not trying to slow climate change and give us cleaner air, but only exercising a personal vendetta against the mineral, perhaps from having to memorize the Periodic Table and carbon’s electron configuration in high school chemistry.
Arkansas’s attorney general, Leslie Rutledge, will join more Republican lawsuits to block the rule, as she has other federal rules that reduce atmospheric poisons in East Arkansas. Arkansas’s congressional delegation vows in unison to protect the coal industry and Arkansas ratepayers. The Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce will once again predict the ruin of the Arkansas economy, mass unemployment and penury for the middle class when utilities shutter or convert their old coal plants to natural gas and turn to clean, renewable power sources.
We have heard all those alarums for 45 years, since Congress passed the Clean Air Act almost unanimously and President Nixon signed it into law. It was supposed to eliminate all harmful air pollution by empowering state pollution agencies and the Environmental Protection Agency under the president to tackle environmental threats.
It worked dramatically, scouring the air of harmful chemicals and saving millions of lives, but it has still fallen far short of the goals of 1970, owing to a policy commonly known as grandfathering and to political stalemate the past 20 years.
Here is what everyone needs to know about the scary predictions of ruin from Republican lawmakers, the coal industry and chambers of commerce: The new greenhouse-gas rule, not its critics, serves the self-interest of all living Arkansans and generations of their spawn.
And here is what the Arkansas attorney general, who will waste more taxpayer dollars on fruitless lawsuits against the EPA and the president, should know: The U.S. Supreme Court, including three of its right-wing, proindustry justices, has repeatedly said the Clean Air Act gives the EPA power to regulate greenhouse- gas emissions, including carbon dioxide, from major sources like power plants. In a suit brought by several states that said the second Bush administration was doing nothing to fight global warming, the court ruled in 2007 that carbon dioxide was a pollutant that the EPA could and should regulate. Carbon dioxide from power plants and automobiles is the chief cause of global warming.
Before she has her staff enter another suit against the EPA, Rutledge could profit by reading the clear though reluctant opinion in Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA written last year by Justice Antonin Scalia, although he has never heard of a polluting industry he didn’t like.
But let’s consider only the Arkansas situation, which the chamber of commerce and Republican politicians say is dire. Arkansas will have to do relatively more than most states to reduce its greenhouse- gas emissions to a healthy level (a 36 percent reduction from 2005 rather than an average of 32 percent for other states) because it has done less in the past to control them.
You will remember that three years ago Southwestern Electric Power Co. opened a giant (600 megawatt) coal plant at McNab to produce electricity mostly for Texas after Texas didn’t want it to be built on its soil. The state Court of Appeals and the Arkansas Supreme Court both ruled unanimously that it was neither needed nor environmentally compatible, but Mike Huckabee’s utility commissioners had said back in 2004 that the company could go ahead and build it before getting approval.
Arkansas’s greenhouse-gas problems stem chiefly from Entergy Corp.’s White Bluff and Independence power plants near Pine Bluff and Newport. They rank among the dirtiest power plants in America, between them annually emitting 21 million tons of carbon dioxide, 50,000 tons of methane, 109,000 tons of nitrous oxide and acid and 60,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, the pollutants that poison lakes and forests, cause lung diseases like asthma, emphysema and cancer, and are the primary causes of climate change.
The four generating units are nearing the end of their planned life and Entergy and state regulators must decide whether to shutter them, continue them and install expensive cleaning technology or retrofit them to burn abundant Arkansas natural gas instead of coal, or else replace them entirely with renewable solar and wind power. White Bluff and Independence were grandfathered under the Clean Air Act and did not have to install equipment that scrubbed sulfuric and nitrous acid from the smokestacks. Although Attorney General Jim Guy Tucker insisted that the company should install scrubbers, state regulators gave it a pass.
It should be said that Entergy Arkansas today is a different company from the 1970s, when it had to go along with the big Middle South holding company and resist environmental technology and require Arkansans to pay for nuclear-generated electricity for Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.
Entergy is acquiring a unit of the giant but largely idle clean gas-burning Union Power Plant at El Dorado (its sister subsidiaries are acquiring the other two) and investing in solar and wind power.
The big utility will register a pro-forma complaint about what it has to do, but it acknowledges the grave greenhouse problem and it will make the transition to clean energy that will be both healthful and economically good for Arkansans.
Your grandkids will breathe purer air in a cooler climate, and Leslie Rutledge’s and the chamber’s lost efforts to protect the profits of the coal monarchs in Wyoming and Montana will be long forgotten.