Gas Takes Round 1 In Power Match

Coal interests spin a different view

A proposed coal-fueled power plant generated media and political heat for months, but never got off the drawing board last year in Oklahoma.

In 2005, plans for the $1.8 billion Red Rock plant near Oklahoma City were announced by project partners Oklahoma Gas and Electric, Public Service Co. of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Municipal Power Authority.

Expensive full-page newspaper ads and television spots began popping up like mushrooms after a rain, most opposing a coal plant and using the theme “Know Your Power.”

Many were paid for by Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake Energy Corp., the nation’s third-largest natural gas producer.

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A proposed coal-fueled power plant generated media and political heat for months, but never got off the drawing board last year in Oklahoma.

In 2005, plans for the $1.8 billion Red Rock plant near Oklahoma City were announced by project partners Oklahoma Gas and Electric, Public Service Co. of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Municipal Power Authority.

Expensive full-page newspaper ads and television spots began popping up like mushrooms after a rain, most opposing a coal plant and using the theme “Know Your Power.”

Many were paid for by Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake Energy Corp., the nation’s third-largest natural gas producer.

OG&E responded with ads and inserts in its customers’ monthly electricity bills.

The Oklahoma Corporation Commission (OCC) denied the application by a 2-1 vote in September 2007, but not before hundreds of thousands of dollars had been spent to attempt to sway the opinion of the public and possibly the commission.

Before the spitting match ended, environmental groups, public figures and private individuals – many with little or no knowledge of power generation – joined the fray, testifying at hearings, appearing in ads and talking to reporters.

Ads against the project attempted to link coal plant emissions to childhood asthma, autism and global warming, among other evils.

Proponents countered that the claims were not backed up by serious research, and a coal plant would save more than $5 billion over a 40-year operating life when compared to natural gas at current prices.

Natural gas proponents hailed the commission decision as a victory.

Coal interests said the ruling was not a vote for or against either fuel, but a decision against letting the utilities start recouping construction costs before the project was built.

Corporation commissioners seemed to agree. In published comments accompanying and following the ruling, they noted that the OCC has no authority to tell utilities what fuel to use.

Assistant Attorney General Williams Humes told the (Oklahoma City) Journal Record newspaper that the commission’s only statutory power in the case was to determine if a new power plant was needed and whether the project would meet those needs. Impact on ratepayers also was considered.

Still, during a public comment period that lasted more than a week, people from all walks of life weighed in on the issue of coal vs. natural gas.

“But that’s the power of this case,” Humes told the Journal Record. “It represents something a lot bigger than whether OG&E or PSO get to build Red Rock. It embodies considerations of where we’re going in this state, in the nation, on this planet. The decisions we make today we’ve got to live with 40 or 50 years beyond.”

Epilogue

OG&E entered a new partnership with the OMPA and another state utility to buy an existing gas-fired plant in the region.

In comments to the press following the decision, PSO spokesmen said natural gas probably would be that company’s answer to meeting energy needs “in the near-term.”

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