Articles, OpEd & Branded Content

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Check out Profiles for one way to do this and the following OpEd sample for another.  

Two Georgias and the Cost of Coal

img016Way down below the Fall Line, and so far west that it’s almost in Alabama, sits a little agricultural county called Early. It’s removed enough from most non-residents’ radar screens that I’d bet a beer I don’t need more than two hands to count the number of readers of this article who have been there. I probably don’t need more than one hand for my arithmetic, but I’m a conservative gambler. I wouldn’t know much about the place myself except that it’s the stomping grounds of my mother’s people, and I spent bits of childhood summers there picking peanuts to boil and freeze for winter snacks and tagging along with my granddaddy on his rural mail route.

I object to calling Early County a backwater, but suffice it to say that “progress” tends to happen elsewhere, and all the money that has poured into North Georgia over the past couple decades hasn’t made it to the southwest corner of the state. For most folks down there who need jobs (and for the lucky few who stand to line already-fat pockets) a little development sounds like a great idea. And it looks like prayers for progress may have been answered.

On January 11, 2008, Judge Stephanie Howells in Atlanta ruled to uphold the state Environmental Protection Division’s (EPD) decision to issue an air pollution permit to Houston-based Dynegy’s Longleaf coal-fired power plant. The permit will allow a 1200-megawatt plant to be built on the banks of the Chattahoochee River. It will become the first new plant to be built in Georgia in 20 years, but it may not be the last. On the heels of Howells’ decision, a Georgia-based consortium of power providers, Power4Georgians, announced plans to build another plant near Sandersville, about 90 miles south of Athens.

Most scientists–although not all–agree that carbon dioxide emissions produced by coal-fired power plants, including the so-called clean ones, contribute to climate change, and climate change has provided the most frequently cited reason to oppose the plants. But it’s not the reason that my cousins in Southwest Georgia have been fighting tooth and nail for the past two years to block the Dynegy Longleaf plant. No, they are thinking about the wilderness lands that will be leveled and others that will be compromised by the plant. And they are thinking about asthma.

Asthma is the number-one reason children miss school in Georgia, and leaving the more-often cited global climate change debate aside for a moment, increased CO2 emissions present a direct health risk to Georgia residents. Stanford University scientist Mark Jacobson recently published findings that point to direct links between CO2 in the atmosphere and human mortality. “This is a cause and effect relationship, not just a correlation,” Jacobson said of his study, published in Geophysical Research Letters. When the summer prevailing winds kick up and bring South Georgia air this way, we in Athens are downwind of both the Early County and Washington County plants. Remember last year’s smoke from the Okefenokee fires?

Georgia is already home to 12 coal-fired plants, and two of them are among the dirtiest in the country. With the addition of coal-fired power plants, our asthma issue only stands to get worse. The Dynegy Longleaf plan alone is expected to contribute 9 million tons of CO2 pollution annually, which is the equivalent of adding 1.3 million cars to Georgia’s roads every year.

Georgia in the World

Asthma and our air quality in Georgia are not what worry the country’s top investment banks about the viability of coal-fired plants, however. In February, the Wall Street Journal reported that Citigroup, Inc., J.P. Morgan Chase, and Moran Stanley–increasingly convinced that the U.S. government’ will implement cap-and-trade standards for emissions–will demand more stringent proof from utility companies that coal-fired power plants are good investments before the banks will fund them. Big banks are beginning to think of coal-fired power plants as risky business.

Georgia government, on the other hand, seems to like the kind of gamble that coal-fired power plants represent. According to Friends of the Chattahoochee, the Sierra Club, and GreenLaw–the firm arguing the case against the Dynegy plant, the EPD permit was granted by the state in response to details supplied directly by Dynegy, and the EPD ignored evidence that Dynegy did not have plans to adequately restrict health-threatening emissions nor emissions that would negatively impact crops essential to the local economy.

Although the plant will employ about 100 Early County residents, and its construction may stimulate the local economy, at least temporarily, the plant is not being built in response to current or local energy needs. The Dynegy Longleaf plant is what the industry calls a “merchant plant,” which is to say that energy generated by the plan can be sold to the highest bidder and is likely to be sold outside the state. The gamble Atlanta government officials have sanctioned offers short-term gains and long-term consequences to the state’s residents, not just the folks down there in the little agricultural county called Early.

In the few months since my distant cousin, Carleen, let me know what she was up to, I’ve mentioned the plant in passing, and I’ve sent emails with abandon to North Georgia folks I know. Few seem to be aware that new coal-fired power plants loom menacingly in our future. More people than I’d like to count seem to think that a South Georgia plant might as well be a South American plant. And that gets me back to the two Georgias.

Atlanta may be the economic center of the state, and South Georgia might be a bunch of farmland, but that argument starts to sound a little like the pre-Civil War chats about the industrialized North and the agricultural South, and frankly, I start to squirm. And when Governor Charlie Crist, just over the border in Tallahassee, has more to say in opposition to a plant slated for South Georgia than we do up here, I start to worry about the blinders we might be wearing.

Georgia is one of the most populous states east of the Mississippi and one of the fastest growing states int he nation. We have a wealth of resources and wildly diverse opinions about how to make good use of them. We also operate like a multi-headed dragon that doesn’t seem to realize it only has one body. That the goings-on in Atlanta have repercussions throughout the state comes as no surprise to anyone. But the goings-on in Early County, if Houston-based Dynegy has its way, and goings on in Washington County, if Power4Georgians has its way, are about to affect all the residents of the state for the next 50 years or so. The air we breathe, the water in our rivers and the global climate change situation are about to be impacted negatively if Dynegy’s Longleaf goes online and paves the way for Plant Washington and others.

True Benefits, True Costs

I hate to sound like an alarmist. Rather, I prefer a cost-benefit analysis that represents a broader and more long-range picture than the ones we tend to favor here in the United States. Although we are acknowledged the world over for our capacity to innovate, we are not widely believed to have much perspective, particularly when it comes to long-range vision. But, it doesn’t take much vision to realize we need to explore alternatives to meet our energy and employment needs when the big investment banks are factoring the negative effects of coal-fired power plants into their own cost-benefit analyses. When the folks on Wall Street are paying attention to the goings-on in little counties in Georgia, Michigan, Arkansas, Iowa and Nevada because utility companies are targeting them for new coal-fired power plants, it might be a sign to those of us in, and adjacent to, the economic powerhouses of our respective states to look around, too.

Here’s what we’ll find if we look down Early County-way: although Judge Howells’ January decision will be appealed, Dynegy currently has the green light to build a 1200-megawatt coal-fired power plant in Early County. The plant will consume 20 million gallons of water per day from the Chattahoochee, a water resource that is already over-allocated. It will emit 4700 tons of sulfur dioxide per year, which will threaten peanut crops and loblolly, slash, and shortleaf pine forests. It will violate EPA standards for fine particulate matter in Early County, and will emit nitrogen oxide, which causes smog, acid rain and health problems. The plant will emit 9 million tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of adding 1.3 million cars to Georgia’s roads.

Currently coal generates about half of the electricity in the country. Given our coal reserves, it might look like a good option for fulfilling our future electricity needs, but using coal to generate power becomes locally and globally expensive if the terms of the cost-benefit analysis are broadened to include issues related to air quality, water use and global climate change.

I have a personal stake in halting progress that is defined as a coal-fired power plant in Early County–both because my relatives will be directly impacted negatively and because I don’t want to suffer, and don’t want anyone else to suffer, the deleterious effects of energy produced by coal. I also want the forest I remember from my childhood and continue to hold dear to be preserved.

Many residents of Early County, however, are in favor of the plant. To them, it promises a little piece of the pie they feel they are missing while things boom and look glamorous and bustling up this way and elsewhere. I even know of some folks in North Georgia who are in favor of the plant because “coal is our most plentiful resource, and we need energy.”

But I have to wonder whether we aren’t capable of creating better options. I have to wonder what a cost-benefit analysis that fully incorporates all the costs involved might lead us to discover. I have to wonder what a vision that merges the two Georgias and moves beyond them to see one planet might require us to do. I have to wonder whether we can’t create some better cards before we place our bets.

–published in The Flapole: Colorbearer of Athens, April 23, 2008

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