Prayer meeting fervor obscures the difficult questions about coal
By Tom Baxter
If you sensed a sanctified aura emanating from the Omni Hotel last week, it’s because a very sacred subject was being discussed inside.
“I hope all the citizens of Alabama will be in prayer that the right thing will be done,” Alabama Public Service Commission chair Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh said at a press conference in Birmingham, before heading to Atlanta for an EPA field hearing Tuesday.
“Who has the right to take what God’s given a state?” asked Alabama Public Service Commissioner-elect Chip Beeker.
The subject of this religiosity was the EPA’s proposed plan, announced earlier in the summer, to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in existing power plants. The 27 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 which Alabama has been called on to make isn’t as much of a challenge as the 44 percent cut projected for Georgia. But coal mining is a bigger part of the economy in our neighboring state, and it has produced some of the most fervent recruits in the coal industry’s long rear-guard action against tighter environmental standards. Beeker won his seat by defeating PSC commissioner Terry Dunn in this year’s Republican primary, after Dunn dared to request that Alabama Power executives be require to testify under oath at commission hearings.
Alabama isn’t the only state where coal carries political clout. Following the accidental spill of 39,000 tons of toxic coal ash into the Dan River in February, North Carolina’s legislature this year took up the issue of better management of Duke Power’s 14 coal ash farms. But it failed to reach agreement on the issue, leaving Gov. Pat McCrory — who used to work for Duke Power — to go all Obama and issue an executive order to begin assessments at the ponds. Critics have charged the order doesn’t do a lot more than what a court has already demanded of the company.
The field hearings were held in Atlanta, Denver, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., drawing a sizable number of demonstrators, pro and con, in all locations.
Here in Atlanta, Alabama coal miner Walter Parker’s voice choked with emotion as he spoke of the consequences of tighter standards on coal.
“In the end, most people here will not wonder or care what happens to my wife and kids if I no longer have a job,” Parker said.
But a retired coal miner with black lung disease from Harlan County, Kentucky, drove to the Denver hearing to urge the EPA to press forward.
“We’re dying, literally dying for you to help us,” said miner Stanley Sturgill.
Beyond the religious certainties, the actual economic effect of the proposed limits on coal-generated power turn out to be somewhat nebulous, despite dire warnings from opponents, alarmed about rising rates, or proponents, who worry about the costs of allowing global warming to go unchecked.
“It will increase Georgia rates. I guarantee you that,” Georgia PSC chair Chuck Eaton said last week.
But when pressed on that question by the AJC, Ron Shipman. vice president of environmental affairs at Georgia Power, acknowledged the company is not yet completely sure whether the changes will cause rates to go up or down.
“It could be more, it could be less. We don’t know yet,” he said.
The decline of coal has had an another, less carefully studied, effect. About three days a week, a train loaded with dehydrated wood chips arrives in Savannah from Waycross, bound for power plants in Europe which are using the chips to meet their own, very high emissions. Wood chip plants are beginning to pop up all over the Southeast, as the demand for cleaner fuel grows. These are alternative energy jobs.
There’s no firm consensus on what the overall impact of the shift from coal — foreordained both for financial and environmental reasons — will be on the economy. Last week Alabama Power announced it was converting two small coal-fired units to a gas unit (abundant natural gas reserves have been discovered in Alabama over the past several years, incidentally). It said about 60 fewer people would be employed at the cleaner-burning plant, but that would be absorbed by retirements and attrition. It warned darkly about the possible upward pressure on rates, but made no firm prediction.
Unfortunately, the public process for studying these impacts has become another battleground for hardened political convictions, and less a hard consideration, from all perspectives, of the economic realities ahead. With a little prayer meeting thrown in.