Idaho senators object to rule allowing coal plants

Idaho senators object to rule allowing coal plants

Thirty-three of 35 state senators have signed a petition urging Gov. Jim Risch to opt out of a federal pollution trading program that, if adopted, could clear the way for coal-fired power plants to be built in Idaho.

Twenty-six Republicans and seven Senate Democrats want to buy more time for state agencies — the departments of Environmental Quality, Fish and Game, and Health and Welfare — to study mercury pollution in Idaho, including lakes that some scientists believe have been doused by airborne pollution from Nevada gold mines.

Mercury can cause neurological damage and other health problems.

Idaho doesn’t have coal-fired power plants, and would have to adopt the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Clean Air Mercury Rule” to allow companies that want to build new plants here to buy so-called “mercury emission credits” from other states.

Risch has promised to rule by this fall.

Coal-fired power is a hot topic in Idaho, especially after a California utility owner proposed building a $1.4 billion power plant in Jerome County and another company said it wanted to erect an $850 million coal-gasification plant near Pocatello. The 2006 Legislature passed a two-year moratorium on coal plants, and a subcommittee is meeting this summer to update Idaho’s 1984 energy plan.

“Mercury has just come onto the radar screen,” said Sen. Chuck Coiner, R-Twin Falls, who organized the petition with Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise. “We’re the recipient of huge amounts of mercury coming out of Nevada. We need a time out from the mercury cap-and-trade program, until we have a better understanding.”

Even if Risch were to reject the EPA rule now, Idaho could still opt into the “cap and trade” program later, writing its own conditions for a mercury-trading scheme.

According to the petition, “Before the irrevocable decision is made to ‘opt in’ to this program, a better understanding of the source, nature and extent and potential impacts of mercury contamination in Idaho is needed.”

Only Sen. Robert Geddes, R-Soda Springs, and Sen. Don Burtenshaw, R-Terreton, didn’t sign.

Burtenshaw fears opting out would limit Idaho’s search for new energy sources for a growing population of 1.4 million.

If the proposed Pocatello coal-gasification plant is built, the company building it would have to buy mercury-emission credits from elsewhere. The gasification plant would turn coal to synthetic gas and burn it to generate electricity.

“From a gasified source, there’s no other way to put one in without having that cap and trade,” Burtenshaw said. “We just need to not close any doors.”

Idaho Power Co. has also said it would prefer Risch opt in, arguing it gives the 455,000-customer utility the most flexibility. The Boise company expects to need enough additional electricity from coal-fired generation by 2013 to light 375,000 homes, but hasn’t specified where it would get it.

The utility owns part of a Wyoming coal plant.

Conservation groups are asking the state Board of Environmental Quality, which meets next week in Coeur d’Alene, to write rules opting Idaho out of the EPA program.

Risch, who plans to attend that meeting, is taking the Senate petition into consideration.

“Thirty-three senators is a significant number,” said Brad Hoaglun, his press secretary. “We’ll certainly take a close look at that.”

Kelly, a lawyer former administrator with the Department of Environmental Quality, wants to let her former agency, as well as Health and Welfare and Fish and Game, complete studies of Idaho mercury hotspots.

Some scientists, including some at the Idaho National Laboratory near Idaho Falls, suspect northerly winds are bringing it from Nevada mines. They say it may be responsible for pollution in the Salmon Falls Reservoir, where there are health warnings to limit fish consumption.

The petition isn’t just a stalling tactic by anti-coal elements designed to forever stymie efforts to build coal plants here, Kelly said.

“I don’t think we would have 33 of 35 Senators signing if this was that,” Kelly said. “You can put conditions on (the cap-and-trade rule). But if you don’t have the information to know what those conditions would be, then you’re not making the best decision — or at least an informed decision.”


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