Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Coal plant rules must be rewritten

Commentary by Sen. Clint Stennett


By SEN. CLINT STENNETT, D-Ketchum

As Idahoans we are being asked to address a very basic question about the future of the Magic Valley. Are we willing to give up our pristine air and water to produce electricity to power the economy of the West Coast? In my 16 years in the Idaho Legislature, and as a 42-year resident of the Magic Valley, I do not believe that I have seen another issue that would so significantly alter the quality of life we now enjoy.

We are not prepared to deal with the coal-fired generation plants that have been proposed. Prior to the wholesale deregulation of electricity (which occurred in the mid 90s), a public utility would go to the Idaho Public Utilities Commission and ask for permission to build an electric generating facility. That created a process where, as Idahoans, we could weigh in with our concerns. Since deregulation, unregulated merchant power plants can be built without state oversight. These merchant power plants are unregulated; therefore they must produce electricity as cheaply as possible and sell it to the highest bidder.

The type of facility proposed for the Magic Valley could not be constructed in California or Washington--where the power is likely to be sold. The air quality standards for coal-fired power plants in those states are more stringent than the air quality standards here in Idaho. Are we ready and willing to become an energy colony to help drive the economy for the cities on the West Coast when they would not permit this same type of facility within their own state borders? I would hope not.

Last week I attempted to address this vexing issue with a number of pieces of legislation. First I have called for a moratorium, which would halt accepting permits for coal fired plants. This measure would give us a time-out and give local and state government and regulators time to rewrite the rules for coal fired plants in a deregulated environment.

I also introduced legislation that would require notice be given and testimony be accepted from residents of counties bordering the proposed coal fired power plant. Jerome County should not be able to make this valley wide decision in a vacuum. The residents of my legislative district who live in Lincoln and Gooding counties deserve seats at the table. As do residents of Twin Falls, Minidoka and Cassia counties. Another bill would form a statewide siting council that would include voting representation from all counties and cities within a 50-mile radius of the proposed site.

The deregulation of wholesale electricity production was not contemplated when Idaho's laws were written on taxing power plants. I fail to see why we should treat a California-based merchant power plant differently than a local public utility plant for taxation purposes. With that in mind, I introduced another bill that would treat merchant coal fired power plants the same as we treat public utility power plants. The power plant would be valued by the Idaho Tax Commission and then the tax would be apportioned to the counties similar to the method used as though it were owned by a public utility. Further, this bill removes the enormous incentive of the property tax that is being waved around Jerome County.

Finally, I have introduced a bill that protects Idaho's air quality from this type of coal-fired plant. Mercury is a health threat and a byproduct of burning coal; this proposed Magic Valley power plant intends to burn 300 tons of coal per hour. I have proposed that Idaho protect its air quality and set a mercury standard of zero new mercury emissions.

The day will come when we will need additional electricity to power Idaho's economy. As technology progresses, the newest and best technology, such as coal gasification plants, will emit a fraction of the mercury that this old technology plant will produce. I say, let's preserve our air and water for a time when Idaho needs the electricity. When that time comes let's have Idaho Power build a state of the art 21st century power plant. Using old style technology to build a power plant in 2006 is like buying a VCR for your plasma screen TV.

As a state, we need to do all we can to maintain our quality of life. As the Senate Minority Leader, I am doing all that I can do at the state Capitol. Yet, the ultimate responsibility lies with you. The public needs to be heard. Let your legislators and your county commissioners know how important this issue is to you. In the 1970s, I was a Jerome County resident and student leader at CSI. One of the first issues I became involved with politically was the proposed Pioneer coal-fired plant. Public activism and outcry shut down that proposal and preserved our air quality for the past 30 years. I believe the public has the power again to shape the outcome of this proposal as well. If we intend to allow these facilities in our state, it should be on our terms. With our current regulatory structure, we are neither prepared nor able to dictate those terms. We need to pass this legislation to give Idahoans the authority to tell these out-of-state power merchants that Idaho's air and water are not for sale.

contact:

Sen. Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, represents District 25 in the Idaho Legislature and is the Senate Minority Leader. He can be reached by calling (208) 332-1000 or toll-free 1-800-626-0471, via e-mail at idleginfo@lso.idaho.gov, or by mail to P.O. Box 83720, Boise, ID 83720.




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