Blackening the Skies

The Bush Administration Pushes Dirty Coal Plants

Why was the Lake Michigan coastal city of Manistee, population 6,600, targeted for a $700 million, 425-megawatt coal-powered electric power plant, the largest proposed in Michigan in two decades? And why, in the face of an abundance of electric power that has driven wholesale prices in the Midwest to the lowest level in more than a decade, was an immensely polluting plant even being considered in a heavily forested region with some of the loveliest wild rivers and clearest lakes in the nation?

Bridgeport Harbor Generating Station is one of Conneticut's top polluting coal power plants.© Brian Howard

The answers, residents discovered, lay to a great extent in Washington where the Bush administration is executing a government-wide strategic plan to simultaneously dismantle federal environmental safeguards and encourage burning more fossil fuel. The pitched and very public struggle this year along the northern Lake Michigan coast over energy policy, federal environmental law and a big new coal-fired power plant provides powerful evidence that the President’s stealth strategy is raising a ruckus at the grassroots level, and is likely to backfire.

For a brief moment last year, Tondu Energy Company’s "Northern Lights" power plant enjoyed some support. It would, said the company’s executives, be the cleanest coal-powered electric plant in Michigan and provide more than 100 temporary construction jobs and 60 permanent full-time positions in a community hurt by industrial job losses.

But the plant’s critics—including a local Native American tribe, business owners and retirees—dug into the idea and discovered much more was at work. The new utility, it turned out, reflected a convergence of powerful national energy market developments and, to some degree, political and environmental regulatory trends that are producing a nationwide surge in proposals for new coal-fired power stations, with a special focus on the Great Lakes region.

An analysis published in February by the National Energy Technology Laboratory, a unit of the federal Department of Energy, identified 94 coal-fired plants in various stages of planning, by far the most such proposals in years. Although the report said that plans to build major new power plants are "often speculative and typically operate on boom-and-bust cycles," experts at the Energy Department predict that up to half of the coal-fired utilities will eventually be built. Illinois leads all states with 10 proposals; Wisconsin has five. Utilities in the Great Lakes states plan 23 new coal-fired plants. Northern Lights was the only such proposal identified in Michigan.

"Five years ago, if you had prepared the same list, it would have been dominated by natural gas plants," says Tom Sarkus, the director of advanced energy systems at the National Energy Technology Laboratory, speaking from his office in Pittsburgh. "Natural gas prices were comparatively low. Natural gas prices have gone up."

Indeed, one factor prompting new interest in burning coal to make electricity is that the price of natural gas (which is much cleaner than coal) has more than doubled since the 1990s. Although construction costs for a gas-fired power plant are typically about a third less than for a coal-powered plant, the current high cost of natural gas defeats that initial advantage. Today, capital costs aside, it costs four times more to generate a unit of energy using gas than it does using coal, says Sarkus.

The price difference elates the mining industry, which predicts coal consumption this year will reach 1.16 billion tons, 3.5 percent more than last year. Most of it will be burned to generate electricity.

But the surge in coal plant proposals is also fostered by the Bush administration and Congressional Republicans, who back new federal research spending for "cleaner" coal-burning technology, tax credits to expand investments in mining, and opening new stretches of the public domain in the West to coal leasing.

Equally important, the White House is also pressing for changes in the 1970 federal Clean Air Act. One change, opposed by eastern states and blocked by a federal appellate court late last year, would allow older coal-fired power plants in Michigan and other states to modernize their plants to increase power production—and the amount of coal they burn—but avoid improving air pollution controls.

A second change is the White House’s attempt to promote an incentive-based program supposedly designed to reduce mercury emissions 70 percent by 2018 as a step forward. Environmental scientists attacked the plan as essentially meaningless and in March the Los Angeles Times reported that the proposed mercury regulations were developed almost entirely by political appointees doing the bidding of utility and mining industry lobbying groups. EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt then appeared to back off when he put the scientifically questionable regulations "under review."

At the national level, the political implications of the White House energy and environmental strategy are self-evident. Sixteen of the 25 states where the $21 billion-a-year American coal industry operates are solidly Republican. Utilities in the predominantly Republican southern states also have pushed hard for burning more coal while lobbying for changes in the Clean Air Act that would allow them to avoid adding more pollution controls.

"They’ve gone out of their way to promote the interests of their core constituencies: western coal interests and southern utilities," says John Thompson, advocacy coordinator for the Clean Air Task Force, a national environmental group.

If what happened in northern Michigan this year is any indication, the President’s energy and environmental program may be running into serious trouble at the grassroots level. The Republican Party controls local and state offices across the region, yet citizens by the thousands vigorously opposed Northern Lights and understood its links to the President’s policies. Nearly 1,000 people, most of them Republicans, attended three packed public hearings during the winter, where opposition to Northern Lights ran four-to-one. In mid-April the Manistee Planning Commission concluded that the plant presented "unacceptable" risks and, in an action that was greeted by a standing ovation, denied the permit with an eight-to-zero vote.