Amid the biblical fires, droughts, floods, hurricanes and rising seas that beset the heating Earth, the old blue orb occasionally absorbs some good news that suggests it may still harbor some hope for a sustainable future.
Traveling for three weeks around the vast Sahara Desert, in Morocco, Egypt and Jordan, for the second time in a year, I was struck by the burgeoning wind and solar farms and the growing transmission structures — what else can be done with a blazing desert? — that portend the day that much of Africa and perhaps Europe and western Asia will live with renewable energy and leave carbon to the cyclical pursuits that God intended for it.
But my point is more parochial. On my arriving back home, the prints carried the news that Entergy Arkansas, the biggest energy producer and distributor in the state, had filed a settlement in federal district court in which it agreed to stop burning coal at its White Bluff and Independence power plants, Arkansas’s two biggest contributors to climate change and atmospheric poisoning. It will be achieved no later than 10 years for one and 12 years for the other as the utility converts to renewable energy sources, principally solar and wind, and perhaps to more natural gas-charged boilers. It also will mothball an inefficient old gas plant near Malvern that emits 208,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases a year.
The settlement ended a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club of Arkansas and the National Parks Conservation Association. The suit was not so much about global warming, at least directly, but about poisoning the national forests and parks, which gave the federal courts jurisdiction. All the greenhouse gases pumped from Independence’s and White Bluff’s smokestacks — more than 20 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, methane, sulfur and nitrous oxide each year — filtered not just through the forests of Eastern Arkansas and the Mississippi River and Ohio River valleys, but also into the air that people breathed. No one could calculate the increased incidence of respiratory diseases like asthma, emphysema and cancer.
Back in the 1970s, the state Public Service Commission allowed the utility to build the plants without scrubbers, expensive units that would scrub out a lot of the poisons, but the costs of the units would be passed along to customers. The state figured the costs outweighed the health issues and let them go. The rising concern in the 1980s about the harm of “acid rain” on people and the hardwood forests changed the equation and, under pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency, the states that burned the hard coal of Appalachia reversed the acid-rain threats. In Arkansas, which burned soft Wyoming coal, we persevered.
Then came along the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration’s big initiative to address climate change by reducing carbon emissions. Owing to Independence, White Bluff and two new merchant coal plants in Mississippi and Hempstead counties that had opened only recently — without state approval — Arkansas looked like it had farther to go than almost any state to meet its goal. Most states were halting plans for new coal plants and shuttering others,
But that has changed dramatically, in spite of President Trump’s declared intention to withdraw from the global climate treaty, scuttle the Clean Power Plan and other environmental safeguards imposed by the government over the past 40 years, and reinvigorate the coal industry. Entergy has moved swiftly to convert to renewable and cheap energy sources, buying a big gas unit at El Dorado and bargaining for solar and wind power. Arkansas will be close to complying with the Clean Power Plan in 2030 and people will be healthier and richer for it.
The bad news keeps coming from Washington. Trump had to oust his EPA director, Scott Pruitt, when his self-enrichment schemes outraged even congressional Republicans, but last week Trump let it be known that he would replace Pruitt with Andrew R. Wheeler, the former coal lobbyist and climate denier whose goal is to scrap environmental safeguards and make the coal industry great again. Wheeler’s goals are no different from Pruitt’s and Trump’s, to set all polluting industries free of government tethers, but he is circumspect and smarter than the reckless Pruitt.
Nevertheless, given the good news, the gospels may yet be proven right, that the meek, not the arrogant, shall inherit the good earth. But it will be close.