News & Views » News Feature

Power group feeling the heat

Energy task force asked to stop spread of power plants


You've probably never heard of Sen. Charles Tanksley, R-Marietta. He's one of those rare politicians that doesn't seek publicity, and it seems sometimes that he doesn't even like it when it comes his way.

It also would seem that he actually thinks before he speaks, another oddity that separates him from some Georgia lawmakers.

Despite all this, Tanksley is about to find himself in the middle of a doo-doo storm. Environmentalists, worried about the spread of water-sucking, pollution-spewing power plants, are focusing a postcard and petition campaign on Tanksley with the hopes that he'll seek a moratorium on new power plant construction.

About a dozen environmental groups (the Sierra Club of Georgia, Georgia Public Interest Research Group, Georgians for Clean Energy and community groups from Heard, Walton, Fulton, Harris, Baker, Glenn and Ben-Hill counties) are collecting signatures for postcards that will be delivered to Tanksley at a press conference on the Capitol steps Jan. 30.

"This is a major concern for a lot of communities around the state, and we're going to let the task force know, very publicly, that it's not a good idea to permit plants that we don't know if we need or even want," says Colleen Kiernan, Georgia Energy Project Organizer for the Sierra Club.

The postcards the activists will pass out read, "Dear Senator Tanksley: Over 20 new power plants are proposed to be built in Georgia, which would produce pollution equivalent to more than a million new cars coming into the state.

"As Task Force Chair, please use your position to recommend that state environmental officials impose a moratorium on new power plants, to give the Task Force time to recommend a sound course for Georgia."

Tanksley got sucked into this power plant mess in the fall, when Gov. Roy Barnes named him chairman of the Governor's Energy Task Force.

The task force is mostly composed of elected officials and behind-the-scenes power company executives. It's wrestling with one of the most serious environmental issues in the state: the proliferation of power plants.

Power plants use massive amounts of water. A medium-sized plant will consume 4 million to 4.5 million gallons of water each day. For drought-stricken Georgia, that's not a good thing.

They'll also spew hundreds of tons of air pollution over a state that already has the worst air quality in the South.

What's more, most of the new plants will send their electricity to the open energy market, not to Georgians.

On the plus side, the plants will pump millions of tax dollars into the local economy.

And, although newer power plants don't employ many workers (ranging from just two to more than 20), they can attract manufacturing companies that employ hundreds because the more plants there are, the more competition will drive down the cost of electricity. Cheaper electricity could mean that big companies would prefer to open their doors in Georgia.

The trouble the environmental groups soon will run into is that Tanksley doesn't have the authority or inclination to issue a moratorium on new power plants.

"I'm much more concerned about gathering information that will let us make long-term evaluations," Tanksley says. "There are more appropriate venues to seek moratoriums. This study committee is not a forum where that could be called realistic. You've got the executive branch, you've got the courts, and I think it would be most presumptuous of me to call for or take the initiative to obtain a moratorium as part of this study committee's work."

The state Environmental Protection Division is actually the agency that could, if officials there wanted to, issue a moratorium on new power plants. Last May EPD Director Harold Reheis did issue a temporary one, but EPD has since resumed issuing permits.

To date, EPD has issued 19 applications. Two were approved in the last two months.

EPD is also reviewing 13 more applications and the agency knows of 11 other applications that will be submitted in 2002.

Back in July, there were 23 plants on the drawing board for Georgia. Now there are 43, and more are expected. But don't expect a moratorium anytime soon.

David Word, EPD assistant director and a member of Tanksley's energy group, says EPD doesn't need to issue a moratorium on new plant permits.

"In May, we had a very, very strong flurry of new applications and we had not, within EPD, asked the questions, 'How much total water will these new plants use?'" Word says. "The difference is, we have now had time to evaluate those kinds of questions and have a better handle on air emissions and water needs."

And so it goes. Georgia Power, Mirant, Duke, Oglethorpe Power, and a host of other power companies send in their applications for permits to build a new power plant and a year to a year-and-a-half later, EPD sends them the permit.

Add a comment