While some Arkansas utility companies have made strides in recent years to curb emissions from coal-fired power plant operations, a new federal proposal means the energy industry will need to do more to further reduce carbon dioxide output in the state.
The plan introduced Monday by the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce earth-warming carbon dioxide emissions from power plants suggests a cut of nearly 45 percent by 2030 for Arkansas — a coal-rich state that derived nearly 44 percent of its energy from that fossil fuel in 2012, according to EPA figures. Natural gas placed second at 26 percent; nuclear power accounted for nearly 24 percent.
State environmental groups hailed the plan. But Arkansas lawmakers from both parties were quick to criticize it, and companies said it could lead to higher prices for ratepayers.
Duane Highley, president and CEO of the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation, said the reduction in the use of coal to generate electricity could also reduce the reliability of electric service.
"This past winter's experience highlighted many reasons why power generation should not put all of our reliability eggs in the natural gas basket," he said. "There were gas plant failures, pipeline freezes and wholesale natural gas supply disruptions. Our nation needs and deserves a diverse energy supply portfolio. ... By reducing the amount of coal in our generation mix, prices will go up and reliability could go down."
Leaders from the state's Department of Environmental Quality and the Arkansas Public Service Commission are expected to meet with Gov. Mike Beebe later this week to discuss the proposal, the governor's spokesman said Monday. The attorney general is also studying the targets.
Some members of the state's congressional delegation came out swinging against the targets, saying they would be a job-killer for Arkansas and cost billions of dollars.
"The president's 'war on coal' hurts Arkansans, as we rely on coal for nearly half of our electric power," said Republican Rep. Tim Griffin. Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor expressed concerns the proposal would undermine affordable and reliable electricity in the state. And Republican Rep. Tom Cotton announced Monday he'll co-sponsor bipartisan legislation to block the power plant proposal. Cotton and Pryor are competing for a Senate seat; Griffin is seeking to become lieutenant governor.
Glen Hooks, chapter director for the Arkansas Sierra Club, said in a statement Monday that reducing carbon pollution was good for environmental and public health. Hooks predicted the switch would create thousands of clean energy and energy efficiency-related jobs.
Some utility companies that have operated for decades in Arkansas have slowly made progress to curb emissions.
Entergy Arkansas, for example, which serves about 700,000 customers in 63 counties, has been working to control carbon emissions since 2000, making large investments in nuclear and natural gas power. Today, nearly two-thirds — 62 percent — of the company's energy mix comes from nuclear power. Just 20 percent comes from coal.
"We're pleased that we've been able to meet our own commitments, and we hope that will position us well under the new regulations," said Ann Becker, a spokeswoman for the company.
Southwestern Electric Power Company, which provides service to 115,000 customers in western Arkansas, has worked to diversify its energy portfolio in the past few decades, transitioning from a mix of 85 percent coal, 15 percent natural gas to a current blend of roughly 55 percent coal and 45 percent gas, company spokesman Scott McCloud said.
The Arkansas Public Service Commission, which regulates public utilities in the state, planned ahead for Monday's proposal, said the commission's executive director, John Bethel. The group held a workshop last week to discuss potential implications of the regulations and has scheduled another meeting later this month.
Power plants are America's largest source of greenhouse gases, accounting for 38 percent of annual emissions. In addition to reducing their reliance on coal-fired plants, states could also make power plants more efficient and invest in more renewable, low-carbon energy sources in order to meet their goals.
The EPA gave customized targets to each state. Some will be allowed to emit more and others less, leading to an overall, nationwide reduction of 30 percent.