Get While the Gettin’s Good

By David Ponton

I was delighted to read in the first sentence of an article in the Wall Street Journal today that “Top executives at many utilities have reluctantly accepted that coal fired power plants contribute to global warming, and they have begun planning for a more restrictive future.”

“Accepted!” “Global Warming!” “Planning!” Those are words I never expected to hear attributed to utility executives.

My delight quickly turned to dismay as I read further in Rebecca Smith’s article.

She notes that TXU Corporation, a big Texas power conglomerate, is responding by speeding up development of polluting coal-fired plants. According to critics, TXU is rushing to build 11 new, large power plants in Texas that will burn pulverized coal. The goal is to build them before carbon regulation comes, in the expectation that existing plants will get an exception to carbon emissions. Citing company letters, the article states that TXU, led by chief executive C. John Wilder, oppose regulations to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

If getting ahead of regulation is truly TXU’s motivation to rush to build these plants, they are acting immorally. The have placed the profit of the company and shareholders above the well-being of all humanity. I am reminded of the logging companies in California that reacted to proposed bans on the cutting of redwoods by cutting redwoods as fast as they could. The logs don’t rot, so they stockpiled masses of the ancient trees ahead of the ban. Egregious greed! TXU also seems to be “gettin while the gettin’s good.”

Ms. Smith points out that other, more responsible big utility companies including American Electric Power Co., Xcel Energy Inc. and Duke Energy Corp. have proposed newer style plants designed to release fewer pollutants and make it easier to control carbon dioxide emissions.

The article goes on to cite estimates of TXU’s jump in carbon emissions when the new plants go on line in 2011, rising to 133 million tons per year from 55 million tons in 2004. The article also contains background on carbon emissions and global warming for the illumination of readers that have been on another planet until today. (A subscription is required to read the Wall Street Journal piece.)

The article cites J. Wayne Leonard, CEO of Entergy Corporation, who said of heedlessly building coal plants: “You stop doing what you’re doing because you’re putting all mankind at risk.” Entergy makes most of its electricity from nuclear and natural gas.

The article discusses the emerging technology of coal gasification, which makes possible the capture of most of the carbon dioxide produced in the process, and recent advances in gasification that might make coal gasification plants competitively priced. Such plants are feasible in states that are progressive in regulating carbon emissions. Texas, where TXU is based, is not one of them. The Governor issued an executive order last year instructing state agencies to expedite applications for new plants, especially those that burn coal mined in Texas.

That seems to be another case of a vicious circle between business and government, this one leveraging immorality to all humanity.

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