Last summer, my teenage sons and I took a two-week “Hooks Man Road Trip” from Arkansas to San Francisco and back. We had a tremendous adventure and created what I hope will be lasting family memories.
One of those memories has really stuck with me: the fact that we saw wind power being generated in every single state we drove through —Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma. Every state, that is, but Arkansas. To a lifelong Arkansan like me, that’s troubling.
Unlike states in our region and across the country, our home state of Arkansas does not generate a single megawatt of electricity from wind or solar power. We in Arkansas get our electricity primarily from burning dirty coal, and the rest from gas, nuclear and a small amount from hydroelectric dams. Coal is the single dirtiest fuel source available, and our small state is home to five coal-burning power plants — three of which are more than 30 years old.
It is settled fact that burning coal to generate electricity dramatically worsens the health of Arkansans and damages our state’s environment. We know that burning coal releases millions of tons of carbon into our atmosphere, plus mercury and other deadly air pollutants into our air, water and bodies. What’s less well known is the tremendous negative economic impact caused by relying on coal. Each year, our Arkansas utilities send nearly $700 million out of state to buy coal from Wyoming, which is then sent here by train and burned in our state’s power plants. That’s a great deal for the folks in Wyoming — but not so great for us here in Arkansas. Wyoming gets to keep our money, and we get to keep all the pollution generated by burning dirty coal.
The good news: For the first time in our nation’s history, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed to limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. The EPA’s Clean Power Plan aims to cut carbon pollution from power plants by 30 percent nationwide — and by 44 percent in coal-heavy Arkansas. Our state regulators, environmental groups, utilities and others are currently meeting to hash out the smartest way for Arkansas to meet its Clean Power Plan goals.
The Clean Power Plan presents a tremendous opportunity for our state to jump-start the Arkansas economy. This opportunity should be embraced — if our state’s leaders draft a plan that moves us away from dirty coal and toward cleaner sources of energy, all while implementing an aggressive energy efficiency program, we can meet our goals while creating thousands of good-paying jobs for Arkansans. I’m talking about jobs manufacturing solar panels and wind turbines, or installing energy-efficient water heaters, or retrofitting homes and businesses so that consumers save energy. These are good jobs that can be done by an Arkansas workforce that needs it.
Predictably, some leaders from our utilities and industry are predicting catastrophe and claiming that the sky will fall if the Clean Power Plan is finalized. We should always remember that these folks have a long history of opposing each and every environmental rule — with wildly overblown claims of economic disaster that have proven to be wrong over and over again. If we’d listened to these naysayers in the past, there would have never been a Clean Air Act, there would never have been a Clean Water Act, and we’d still have acid rain. These entities have a strong economic interest in keeping things the way they are. The rest of us have a stronger interest in a cleaner, healthier power system for our state.
The EPA is accepting public comments on the Clean Power Plan between now and Dec. 1. I hope you will join us in supporting this important step forward. To send in your comment, go to arkansas.sierraclub.org.
My sons will soon be men, and maybe someday will have children of their own. I’m looking forward to taking another road trip then, with my children and their children, and proudly pointing out evidence that our home, Arkansas, has embraced a clean energy path forward. We can do it. It just takes the political will and the vision to do so.
Glen Hooks is director of the Sierra Club of Arkansas. Max Brantley is on vacation.