Coal-Fired Plant Stirs Debate Over Environmental Cost

Sunday, September 2nd 2007, 7:10 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Plans for a $1.8 billion, 950-megawatt coal-fired power plant in northern Oklahoma are stirring debate over the environmental costs of affordable electric power.

Oklahoma Gas & Electric Company, Public Service Company of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Municipal Power Authority are seeking regulatory approval for the proposed Red Rock power plant adjacent to OG&E's existing Sooner Power Plant in Noble County, about 80 miles north of Oklahoma City.

Utility officials say the massive power plant is needed to keep up with growing consumer demand for electricity. They want to use coal as a fuel because it is far less expensive than natural gas, a plentiful fuel in Oklahoma that is also used to generate electricity, and will help the utilities keep consumer costs down.

But opponents say there are more costs associated with coal-produced power than those that show up on the electricity bill.

Burning coal is a leading cause of smog, acid rain, global warming and air toxins, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Mass.

In an average year, a typical coal-fired generating plant will produce 3.7 million tons of carbon dioxide, the primary human cause of global warming, 10,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain, and heavy metals like mercury, arsenic and lead that can lead to a variety of health problems.

``Our view is that there are a lot of other alternatives out there that are cleaner and less risky,'' said Steve Clemmer, research director at the union's clean energy program.

More than 60 percent of Oklahoma's generated power is fueled by coal. And in spite of the environmental risks, coal is expected to remain part of the state's and nation's energy mix for decades, said Mike Fowler, technical coordinator of coal transition project for the Clean Air Task Force in Boston.

The Coalition for Affordable and Reliable Energy in Washington said that in 1980, the U.S. used 569 million tons of coal to generate electricity. By 2001, coal usage had grown to 966 million tons, a 70 percent increase.

And its use by power generators is expected to continue to increase as utilities, attracted by coal's low cost and plentifulness, bring more coal-fired plants on line.

Coal costs 85 percent less than natural gas. And 27 percent of all the coal in the world is located in the U.S., which has the most coal reserves of any nation, according to Luke Popovich of the National Mining Association.

The Red Rock plant is just one of about 150 coal-fired power plants that are on the drawing boards nationwide, according to Bruce Nilles of Madison, Wis., director of the Sierra Club's national coal campaign.

The other plants include a proposed $1.3 billion, 600 megawatt coal-fired power plant in southwest Arkansas and several plants in Texas, which already burns more coal to generate electricity than any other state in the nation, according to the Energy Information Administration.

``We don't think it's going away,'' said Fowler of the Clean Air Task Force. The challenge is to reduce coal's destructive effect on the environment by installing new technologies that can dramatically reduce the environmental impact, he said.

``No one will deny that coal has environmental liabilities,'' said Popovich. ``The problem can be addressed.''

The Red Rock plant will employ state-of-the-art ``ultra supercritical'' technology, which burns coal at higher temperatures to produce electricity more efficiently and reduce emissions, according to utility officials. The technology has been used in Europe but Red Rock would be its first use in the U.S.

The plant, which if built will come on line in 2012, will burn low-sulfur, less polluting coal from Wyoming.

``We have said all along that this project is about meeting our customers' demand for reasonably priced electricity in an environmentally responsible way,'' said Steve Moore, chairman and CEO of OG&E's parent company, OGE Energy Corp.

Brian Alford, spokesman for OG&E, said the Red Rock proposal balances environmental responsibility with long-term cost savings for ratepayers.

``We have been serving Oklahoma for more than 105 years. This is what we do,'' Alford said. ``We have a unique duty to serve Oklahoma. We feel we have put forward the best option for our ratepayers.''

But the Red Rock plant has come under fire from another Oklahoma energy giant, Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake Energy Corp.

The third largest independent natural gas producer in the U.S., Chesapeake has helped Oklahoma become one of the top gas-producing states in the nation with more than a dozen of the 100 largest natural gas fields in the country, according to the EIA.

Chesapeake has bankrolled newspaper ads in Oklahoma and Texas critical of coal-fired power plants and its chairman and chief operating officer, Aubrey McClendon, appeared before the Oklahoma Corporation Commission to urge regulators to reject Red Rock.

``It's a relic of the 20th century, maybe the 19th century,'' McClendon said. ``We'll be importing train loads of coal from Wyoming every day.''

The cost of the plant could rise to $3 billion before it comes on line and operational costs could soar as proposed federal taxes and regulations on producers of global warming gases are imposed.

McClendon also said the plant's ultra supercritical technology will reduce emissions by only about 10 percent.

``It's like sending your dirty laundry to the cleaners and it comes back 10 percent cleaner,'' he said. ``Oklahomans don't deserve to be the guinea pigs for this kind of technology.''

McClendon made no apologies for his company's obvious financial interest in the outcome of the debate about Red Rock, which threatens to deprive Chesapeake and a major power-producing customer.

``Natural gas is cleaner. It's produced right here. It's the backbone of our economy,'' McClendon said. ``I'm not embarrassed or ashamed to be a pitchman for a product that I think is better than their product.''

Related Stories:

6/13/2007 Supreme Court Asked To Block Consideration Of Coal-Fired Plant

7/9/2007 Environmentalists Speak Out Against Proposed Coal-Fired Power Plant

7/10/2007 Chesapeake Asks Supreme Court To Halt Coal-Fired Power Plant Hearings

8/21/2007 Judge Backs Coal-Fired Plant

8/22/2007 Opponents Of Coal Fired Plant Suffer Setbacks