Why Electric Companies Have All the Power

KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images
A coal fire electric plant in Hudson, Wisconsin.
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If you want know why the richest, most technologically advanced nation on earth is still burning black rocks for power – and, in the process, killing people and cooking the planet – check out this New York Times editorial.  It takes the wood to American Electric Power, blasting the country's biggest coal burner for cynically suggesting that new air quality rules would force the utility to "prematurely" shut down about two dozen dirty coal plants and fire hundreds of workers.  As the Times points out, these coal plants are ancient beasts, averaging 55 years-old, and had long been slated for demolition anyway, in part to comply with a court order to reduce toxic pollution.  But now the utility is pushing for a delay, arguing that the timeline for the new rules is "unrealistic" and will force the shutdown of plants, cost jobs, and raise the price of electricity. As the editorial puts it, "Blaming the rules is a transparent scare tactic designed to weaken the administration's resolve while playing to industry supporters on Capitol Hill."

This is not just a fight about clean air.  It's about demonizing the EPA, stalling the clean energy revolution, and putting corporate profits above public health and a sustainable planet.

There are so many layers of bullshit in AEP's claims that it's hard to know where to begin.  From the moment the Clean Air Act was passed in the 1970s, big coal burners like AEP have been arguing that any attempt to clean up power plants will drive up the price of power and wreck the economy.  The costs of cleaning up the plants is always wildly exaggerated, and, lo and behold, after the plants are cleaned up, the U.S. economy does not shrivel up and die.  In this particular case, the Center for American Progress has done a good job of debunking many of AEP's claims, including the public health benefits of tighter regulation on coal plant pollution.  According to the American Lung Association, the EPA's proposed rules on mercury and air toxins will prevent 17,000 premature deaths and 120,000 asthma attacks each year.  CAP also points out that tighter air pollution rules would likely lead to a net increase in jobs in states with AEP plants, largely due to investments in new pollution reduction technology.  

But it's the larger political strategy that AEP that's really shameful and cynical.  This is all about money: dirty old coal plants may sicken and kill people, but they are highly profitable.  To keep them operating, or to keep from having to invest in new technology to clean them up, companies like AEP will go to war, using every political weapon at their disposal, including the threat of blackouts.  As the company points out on its website, "early retirement of generating units also causes significant concerns about grid reliability."  This is the nuclear bomb of Beltway warfare.  Nothing freaks out a politician like a blackout, which opens the door to all kinds of chaos and which can get a congressman out on the street faster than tweeting a pic of a 12-year-old boy (ask former California governor George Deukmejian).  What AEP is saying in this coded language about "grid reliability" is really this: if you force us to clean up our coal plants, we can't guarantee that there won't be rolling blackouts due to power shortages.  Perhaps a rolling blackout in your district, Congressman, and right before your election. 

This is why big power companies like AEP have American politicians by the short hairs.  It's not because of the millions of dollars they spend every year in lobbying fees and campaign contributions.  It's because, by controlling the juice that makes our modern lives possible, nobody – not even the president, perhaps especially not the president – dare mess with them.  As one big utility executive told me several years ago during a visit to an electricity transmission hub in Georgia, "Electric power companies have the power to swing an election."  They do, and that simple fact goes a long way toward explaining why, after 40 years of clean air legislation and a clear scientific understanding that greenhouse gas pollution is destabilizing the earth's climate, America is still dependent on dirty coal to keep the lights on.

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