troublesome live wire in an otherwise progressive bill to
clean up coal-fired power plants in North Carolina. Sponsored
by mountain-area legislators Sen. Stephen Metcalf and Rep.
Martin Nesbitt, the bill -- now pending in the state Senate --
would drastically cut pollution-causing emissions from 14
plants scattered across the state. In its current form,
however, CP&L and Duke Power Co. customers would pay the
full $2.2 billion cost through rate increases. The N.C.
Utilities Commission would set the increases until the
state-of-the-art scrubbers and filters were paid for.
CP&L and Duke profit nicely from doing business in
North Carolina. Yet executives resisted stricter pollution
standards for their plants for years because of the high cost
involved. Their compliance would have been voluntary, of
course, because special interests managed to have coal-fired
plants exempted from federal clean air laws. Now that CP&L
and Duke customers would be required to pick up the whole tab,
the companies support the cleanup bill.
It's important to note that North Carolina retail customers
use only about 60 percent of the electricity generated at the
14 plants but would be saddled with the total cost of the
cleanup. And other industries -- which properly have paid to
comply with clean-air laws -- would pay higher power bills to
help finance the utilities' improvements. There certainly
seems to be a risk of unfairness here.
What's more, the Utilities Commission would have no hand in
protecting ordinary North Carolinians under the bill. The
agency would simply set rate increases until the $2.2 billion
was recouped. That's odd, since the commission exists to make
objective judgments on rate matters. Its staff is equipped to
consider Duke's and CP&L's total financial pictures in
determining how much of the cost of providing electricity the
companies and their shareholders should absorb.
As far as the bill's objectives go, they are solid.
Ozone-causing nitrogen oxide emissions would be cut 78 percent
by 2013. Sulfur dioxide would drop by 73 percent. The
improvements are close to the targets that experts say would
protect human and ecological health in the state. Much of the
pollution that blankets the mountains, of course, comes from
states west of North Carolina, but the bill would give North
Carolina officials the high ground when they ask those states
to cut their emissions.
North Carolina still has some of the dirtiest coal-fired
plants in the nation. Vehicle exhaust is a culprit as well,
but the state in 1999 had the fifth highest number of
unhealthy air days. The American Lung Association ranked the
Triangle 17th in smog in the nation and the Charlotte area a
Metcalf and Nesbitt properly worked for their districts --
where mountain vistas often are obscured by smog -- when they
dealt with the power companies. But they gave away too much. A
fairer payment schedule is possible -- and the Utilities
Commission is the proper body to figure it out.