Friday, May 20, 2005

Legislators seek stronger plant siting requirements

Plan to broaden permit process for coal-fired plants moving forward

Express Staff Writer

The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality plans to study large amounts of data compiled by power plant developer Sempra Generation once the company completes an anticipated application for an air quality permit needed to build a planned coal-fired plant in Jerome County.

Last month, California-based Sempra announced it would like to build a $1 billion, 600-megawatt coal-fired plant east of the city of Jerome. Jerome County officials have sole authority to approve the facility if the company obtains necessary DEQ permits and a transfer of water rights.

But some Idaho legislators say the number of people who have say over the proposed plant is not nearly enough.

In the last session of the Idaho Legislature, Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, introduced a bill that would give the state control over the location and operation of generation and transmission facilities. Such a bill is needed Stennett said, because a power plant's impacts are felt beyond a host county's borders.

Last month, Stennett said he does not believe most people in south-central Idaho would support construction of a large-scale coal-fired plant in the region, which could pollute the air in a wide-ranging area.

The proposed bill would have formed a statewide committee, including members of Idaho Fish and Game, DEQ, Idaho Public Utilities Commission and the state Department of Agriculture, that could help guide a more stringent siting process.

The bill did not get printed, but House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said she's optimistic about its reappearance.

"It's a pretty significant piece of legislation to drop into the Legislature," she said. But she said she was encouraged by the response of Interim Energy Committee co-chair Rep. George Eskridge

Eskridge, R-Dover, was on the committee last year and hopes to be appointed again this year.

The summer Interim Energy Committee, which will be appointed May 25, would likely study the issue, Eskridge said. Then a sponsor could bring the bill back in January, when legislators reconvene.

"I think it's time the state does look at it (power plant siting)," Eskridge said Wednesday. "It gets awfully inefficient if you do (siting) on a county-by-county basis. An overall siting law protecting the environment and expediting the siting process would be a good thing for the state."

Effects of a coal-fired plant might spread to other counties, he said, through coal importation, air emissions and power transmission.

"It's more than just a county issue," he said. "A state siting law would address that."

Eskridge said there was nothing specifically wrong with Stennett's proposed bill, but such a major issue requires more review before being enacted.

"It has a lot of merit, but we need to consider (it more)," he said. "This is a pretty serious issue."

Eskridge said it's important that a siting law doesn't impede the decision process.

"If it becomes too burdensome it creates uncertainty and could open the state up to lawsuits," he said.

Eskridge said Idaho is at a turning point in its energy future.

"We've exceeded our hydro(power) capacity," he said. "We're having to turn to other resources."

Primarily, the state should develop renewable resources, Eskridge said.

"But we're also going to have to face the fact we'll have to look at coal-fired and gas-fired plants," he said. "With a good siting bill ensuring reasonable environmental mitigation, we'll be OK."

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