Western utilities beware: Coal is a risky business


It wasn’t long ago that I got one of those flyers about rates that comes with my bill from Xcel Energy, formerly Public Service Co. and now one of the country’s largest utilities, serving much of Colorado and several other Western states.

I knew that Xcel was planning on building a huge and expensive coal-fired power plant in Pueblo, Colo., so instead of pitching it, I read the flyer avidly. Like many Westerners, I was already seeing the signs of climate change all around me: Declining snow pack, drought, miserable summer heat, struggling farmers, hard-to-stop forest fires and millions of dead and dying trees.

It seemed clear to me that building a large coal-fired power plant would further accelerate climate change. So why do it?

To add insult to injury, the flyer informed me that Excel Energy planned to increase everyone’s rates to pay for the new plant, bypassing conventional financing.

The brochure did have a picture of some cute children on the cover and it stated that I could file a written intervention by a certain date if I had objections. I certainly had objections, having read major scientific reports on climate change and its impacts, so I filed what is called a "Petition to Intervene" with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission.

I had a sense that our very pro-coal commission wasn’t going to want to listen to concerns about climate change, so I was careful to emphasize a different issue: money. I warned that at this point in our understanding of climate change, building a 750 megawatt coal-fired power plant was likely to lead to large legal and regulatory costs in the future.

I said that, though Americans have been the subject of a massive disinformation campaign that says the science is unclear, the overwhelming scientific consensus is that climate change is real, that it is caused by emissions of greenhouse gases — especially carbon dioxide — and that the consequences are serious and will go on for centuries.

While foot-dragging persists, this consensus is likely to be punishing for companies that persist in building carbon dioxide-emitting coal plants. As was the case with tobacco, once the science is well enough established, lawsuits are not far behind.

That’s what I wrote, and the next thing I knew, I was in the hearing room in Denver of the Public Utilities Commission, intending to listen to the first pre-hearing conference on Xcel’s proposals to build a coal-fired power plant and to increase our rates to pay for it.

I hadn’t listened for long when the Public Utilities Commission chairman, Gregory Sopkin, singled me out. Sternly, he said the Public Utilities Commission was not going to be considering climate change during the proceedings, and that I should not engage in an exercise in futility.

I responded as well as I could, but Chairman Sopkin was clearly not interested in listening. He told me that my petition to intervene had been rejected and I no longer had the right to speak in the hearings. I was not intimidated, but I was shocked by the brusque tone, and judging by other people’s faces, they were taken aback, too.

It wasn’t many weeks after that that my prediction about lawsuits came true. On July 21, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer of New York and the attorneys general of seven other states sued Xcel Energy and four other utilities over their carbon dioxide emissions at 174 fossil-fuel burning power plants. They said these plants produce 10 percent of the United States output of carbon dioxide, the primary cause of global warming.

I haven’t gotten an apology from Chairman Sopkin, but the obvious bias of the Public Utilities Commission is helping to mobilize opposition to the new power plant in Pueblo. And though Xcel Energy and other power companies seem loath to admit it, the proposal to build more coal-fired power plants is likely to run into strong opposition,

Many citizens like me know there’s another path to follow. We know that renewable energy and aggressive demand side-efficiency programs are the better and cheaper way to meet the energy demands of the West. It’s long past time for Xcel and Colorado’s Public Utility Commission to wise up, too.

Leslie Glustrom is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She is a climate change activist living in Boulder, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.