Friday, March 31, 2006

Power plant moratorium bill on governor's desk

Stennett breathes sigh of relief at bills passage

Express Staff Writer

Idahoans will likely have two years to consider how much energy they need and from what sources it should come.

State senators voted 30-5 Wednesday, March 29, to approve a bill to establish a two-year moratorium on licensing or processing proposals for coal-fired power plants.

The bill, labeled H791, passed the House on March 21 by a vote of 64-5.

The legislation, which must be signed by Gov. Dirk Kempthorne to become law, prohibits for two years the issuing of licenses or permits for construction of certain coal-fired power plants. It does not include coal gasification plants, which burn coal in a different way.

Lawmakers also this week approved House Concurrent Resolution 62, which calls for a state energy plan. The resolution passed the House on March 21 by a 67-1 vote, and the Senate on March 28 by a vote of 35-0.

Environmental groups praised the moratorium decision.

"Out-of-state power companies were obviously eyeing Idaho because of our weak regulatory framework for these sorts of facilities," Courtney Washburn, of the Idaho Conservation League, said in a news release. "This moratorium will allow Idaho to review and strengthen its laws governing the siting and operation of power plants."

A public hearing on the moratorium bill drew more than 80 people to the Capitol on March 27. Most who testified were in favor of a moratorium.

San Diego-based Sempra Generation's 600-megawatt power plant proposed for Jerome County would have fallen under the proposed moratorium.

The company announced Wednesday, however, they will try to sell their development rights to that project.

Sen. Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, whose district includes Blaine, Lincoln, Camas and Gooding counties, proposed at the beginning of this legislative session a one-year moratorium bill, as well as several other power plant-related bills in this and the previous session.

His moratorium bill, labeled S1274, was assigned to the State Affairs Committee but did not get a hearing.

Rep. Sharon Block, R-Twin Falls, later introduced a two-year moratorium bill in the House.

More than 100 people showed up for a public hearing on her bill March 2.

The current bill, H791, was introduced by House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, R-Burley. It gained more momentum than the previous bills, and eventually made its way through both houses.

Despite the lukewarm reception the idea initially got, a number of cities, counties and industry groups have since come out in favor of a moratorium.

The Idaho Dairymen's Association, Idaho Cattle Association, Idaho Medical Association, and the cities of Ketchum, Sun Valley, Twin Falls and Jerome, among others, supported the moratorium.

"The coal-fired plant proposed by Sempra Energy was a wake-up call for the city of Ketchum and all of Idaho," Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall wrote in a letter to Stennett. "(It) called our attention to the lack of proper controls for siting such facilities and forced us to realize how close we were to permanent degradation of our environment."

As the legislative session winds down, Stennett and others who worked to put restrictions on such plants breathed a sigh of relief.

"This comes at the end of a long year," Stennett said Wednesday. "It was 15 months of hard work, but it was worth it. It's remarkable the number of people that showed up and got involved and made this into what it is. We said no."

The lopsided votes in the House and the Senate suggest that a veto by the governor would likely be overturned.

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