(IPS) Coal Plant Washington Advances, EPA to Regulate Carbon Dioxide (UPDATE 1)

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This article originally appeared on the Inter-Press Service at http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=49715.

ATLANTA, Georgia, Dec 16 (IPS/TerraViva) – As governments negotiate future greenhouse gas emissions in Copenhagen, a recent report from Environment America has highlighted the problem of the United States’ older coal-fired power plants, which generated nearly three-quarters of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions from power plants in 2007.

Altogether, U.S. power plants dumped 2.56 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the air in 2007.

Of the nation’s 25 dirtiest power plants, 10 are in the South – and all but one of those was built before 1980. The nation’s dirtiest power plant, the Southern Co.’s Plant Scherer in South Georgia, emitted more than 27.2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2007.

Lee Martin, a Macon, Georgia resident and an active member of Georgians for Smart Energy, knows firsthand the effects of Plant Scherer.

“It emits the most carbon dioxide of any plant in the United States,” he told IPS. “It emits 1,700 pounds of mercury every year.”

Martin said the plant affects portions of Houston, Bibb, and Monroe Counties, with the latter two in non-attainment, which means the air quality does not meet certain Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards.

“It’s a restrictive designation,” he said. “What it really means is the air is unhealthy for people to breathe.”

Martin noted pollution from Scherer has led to fish advisories in nearby lakes and rivers, an increase in asthma cases, and an overall decline in population.

Even with the addition of scrubbers to Scherer, Martin feels “at the very minimum it will bring them up to code”.

“What are you going to do with the pollutants that the scrubbers catch?” he asked. “You can’t just burn away material. Matter turns into something.”

Despite the harmful effects, Martin said local politicians are continuing to protect Scherer.

“It’s a pretty nasty plant but the politicians here protect it,” he said. “They are just fighting like crazy to get the rules changed so they won’t be in non-attainment. It’s a puzzle to me. I just don’t get it.”

The coal industry has been actively fighting the transition to clean energy. The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a coal industry lobby group, spent nearly 40 million dollars in 2008 alone – more than 100,000 a day – on lobbyists and advertising, according to reports to the Internal Revenue Service this month.

But there is trouble on the horizon for coal. The EPA announced earlier this month that carbon dioxide and other global warming pollutants are harmful to the public health and can be regulated under the Clean Air Act.

“The stage is now set for the EPA to hold the biggest global warming polluters accountable,” Emily Figdor, director of Environment America’s Federal Global Warming Program, said in a Dec. 7 statement.

(Editor’s note: As previously reported by IPS, the Supreme Court of the US had already ruled that carbon dioxide is a pollutant and the EPA had taken the initial steps towards defining it as such. Georgia’s issuance of a permit for a proposed coal plant in Early County without considering carbon dioxide, even after the Supreme Court ruling, is at issue in a legal case concerning that permit.)

“The [U.S.] Senate also must act to set overall pollution-reduction goals and to accelerate the move to clean energy, but it’s up to EPA to crack down on pollution from cars and mega industrial polluters, like coal-fired power plants,” she added.

Progress Energy Carolinas announced Dec. 1 that it will close all of its remaining North Carolina coal-fired plants that do not have scrubbers by the end of 2017.

The company will close 11 coal-fired plants in four locations – 30 percent of all the company’s coal-fired plants in the state.

“Progress Energy sees the writing on the wall,” Elizabeth Ouzts, director of Environment North Carolina, told IPS. “Coal is not only dirty but it’s going to get more expensive.

Company officials told The Raleigh News & Observer on Dec. 2 that the cost of constructing natural gas replacement plants would be about 1.5 billion dollars whereas the cost of installing scrubbers would exceed 2.0 billion dollars.

“Natural gas is cleaner than coal [but] we would like to see a more aggressive pursuit of clean energy like solar and wind,” Ouzts said.

Since 2004, 95 new coal-fired plants have been defeated in the United States, according to the Sierra Club. But while some states are backing away from coal, Georgia is sticking with it.

Power4Georgians, a coalition of 10 regional EMCs, estimates the proposed Plant Washington in east-central rural Georgia will cost 2.1 billion dollars while providing 1,600 jobs during the four-year construction project.

After completion, Power4Georgians estimates the plant will create 120 to 130 permanent jobs and generate 7.0 million dollars annually in direct wages and benefits.

An independent assessment provided by the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies, a Chattanooga, Tennessee-based non-profit research group, argues taxpayers may not reap the potential financial and employment perks.

The report says the county faces significant unknown cost risks related to plant construction, leading to the possibility of higher taxes.

“There are no infrastructure costs included as part of the analysis,” said David Eichenthal, president of the Ochs Center. “It’s unclear what those costs would be and it would be unclear how those costs would be funded.”

“It’s likely that some portion of some of the financing of the plant could come through the issuance of revenue bonds,” he added. “The county taxpayers could be directly on the hook for some of the financing of the plant.”

The report also notes that many of the permanent jobs would not go to Washington County residents, leading to less economic activity and revenue.

“We can’t say for certain what the risks and costs are,” Eichenthal said. “The whole point of this is to flash a yellow warning sign. There are a lot of questions that are unanswered. We certainly encourage [local lawmakers] to look at this memo to ask some tough questions as we move ahead.”

Midge Sweet, director of Georgians for Smart Energy, questioned the need for extra power when the population numbers do not appear to add up.

“The population in Washington County is going down and what you have to look at is who would be purchasing this power,” she said. “The demand as we’ve seen it is dropping dramatically.”

“We believe that the underlying premise for this coal plant is flawed,” she added. “We need to have innovation and vision for our energy needs in Georgia and this coal plant does not fulfill those elements.”

Four of the 10 members of Power4Georgians dropped out of the Plant Washington project in May, citing financial risk, declining demand, and the likelihood of increased federal coal regulation.

Nevertheless, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division issued key draft permits for the project in August.

Local activists express disappointment when considering how the United States is approaching its energy future.

“When you look at the chart, we are headed in the exact wrong direction,” Jennette Gayer, an advocate with Environment Georgia, told IPS. “We have potentially three coal plants waiting in the wings. I think it’s scary when the rest of the country is retooling for alternative energy.”

“I hope the federal government trumps the [Georgia] state government in this case because the state is wrong,” Martin said.

(END/2009)

CORRECTION: The present version of this article corrects the statement in the fifth paragraph by Lee Martin regarding Plant Scherer’s emissions. In the original version, APN quoted Lee Marter as saying Plant Scherer emitted more carbon dioxide than any other plant in the world; however, he said it emitted more than any other plant in the US.

About the author:

Jonathan Springston is a Senior Staff Writer for Atlanta Progressive News and is reachable at jonathan@atlantaprogressivenews.com.

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