MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

November 18, 2012

OG&E urged to switch from coal

By D.E. Smoot
Phoenix Staff Writer

— Clean air advocates renewed their call for the state’s largest electricity generator to abandon its challenge of federal rules and the use of coal instead of cleaner alternatives.

Whitney Pearson, an organizer with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coals campaign, issued the call last week. Pearson’s pleas for reconsideration came the same day federal regulators published a proposed settlement with Public Service Company of Oklahoma, which pledged in April to retire its aging coal-fired plants by 2026.

The settlement was struck by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, PSO, the state of Oklahoma and the Sierra Club. Publication of the settlement in the Federal Register opens a 30-day comment period before it takes effect.

Under the agreement, the first coal-burning unit at PSO’s Oologah plant will be phased out and new pollution control technology will be installed on the second unit by April 16, 2016. Between 2021 and 2026, the company will significantly reduce the amount of coal it burns at the unit until it is decommissioned, which scheduled no later than Dec. 31, 2026.

“In preparing for the plant’s retirement, PSO has been a leader and a model for prioritizing its workers while also honoring their duties under the Clean Air Act,” Pearson said in a media release. “Oklahomans will breathe easier once the northeastern plant is retired, but we must also remember that there are still aging, dirty coal plants in Oklahoma contributing to serious air quality concerns. We need further action.”

The plants Pearson refers to are coal-fired units operated by Oklahoma Gas & Electric. The company owns and operates two of the state’s three oldest coal-fired power plants targeted for major changes by the EPA’s regional haze rule. One plant is located between Muskogee and Fort Gibson. The second plant is south of Ponca City in Noble County.

EPA officials have said those plants spew thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide, endangering public health and contributing to low air quality and poor visibility.

“OG&E has the opportunity to show the same type of leadership for Oklahoma that PSO has shown in this responsible plant retirement,” Pearson said. “Instead of shirking their responsibility to provide electricity without harm, OG&E should prioritize protecting public health and keeping rates stable with cleaner sources of energy.”

Brian Alford, director of communications and community relations for OG&E Energy Corp., previously said Oklahoma submitted a plan that offers a less expensive and more flexible approach to meeting the regional haze requirements of the Clean Air Act. Oklahoma’s plan was rejected by the EPA.

The goal of the EPA’s regional haze rule is to reduce emissions of fine particulates, which limit visibility in national parks, and sulfur dioxide, which can harm public health.

OG&E, along with PSO, the state attorney general and a special interest group, challenged the implementation of the federal rule in federal court. Alford, who did not respond to an inquiry seeking comment, has said OG&E uses a blend of fuels to reduce its costs to consumers, who would bear the cost of compliance with the federal rules should they be upheld by the courts and enforced.

The Sierra Club, however, said social and health costs of burning coal outweigh the cost of compliance with the federal rules. Coal-fired power plants, the organization argues, are a major contributor of ozone-forming pollution and threaten Oklahoma’s most vulnerable residents who work or exercise outdoors.

Pearson said Oklahoma has significant clean-energy potential, which could power the state while protecting public health. Oklahoma’s wind resources rank ninth in the United States, with more than 50,000 megawatts of wind power potential. Oklahoma wind is capable of providing more than 31 times as much electricity as Oklahoma currently uses. States such as Alabama are already purchasing Oklahoma wind power.

Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or dsmoot@muskogeephoenix.com.