A Virginia regulatory board unanimously gave final approval for a $1.8 billion coal-fired power plant in the state's far southwest corner.
After a two-day hearing in Wise, Va., the Air Pollution Control Board voted 5-0 to grant Dominion Power permission to begin construction on a 585-megawatt plant near St. Paul, Va.
To secure backing for the plant, Dominion promised to burn only Virginia coal, a promise that opponents say will almost certainly lead to more mountaintop-removal mining in the state. Mountaintop removal involves clearing a mountain's summit of all topsoil and vegetation, blasting off the top with explosives, and dumping the debris into a nearby valley. (The practice is criticized by environmentalists for some reason.)
The board amended the permits, however, to make them more restrictive, said Bill Hayden, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
The board reduced the plant's limit for annual emissions of sulfur dioxide, an air pollutant that also is found in acid rain, by more than two-thirds, Hayden said. The board also reduced the amount of mercury, a toxin that can linger in streams, that the plant can emit, he said. Dominion was required to switch another coal-fired plant in central Virginia to run on cleaner-burning natural gas.
The permits do not, however, limit the plant's emissions of carbon dioxide, the primary cause of global warming. Coal-generated electricity releases more greenhouse gases than any other source of electricity. In March, James Hansen, the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the world's leading climate scientists, called for a global moratorium on coal plants.
The Guardian, a British daily, notes that, while environmentalists have seen success in recent years in defeating proposed coal plants, the logic of cap-and-trade schemes may actually spur construction of new plants:
Although coal industry analysts describe a growing scepticism about new production until the dream of carbon-trapping plants is achieved, some see the beginnings of a bum rush for new construction.
Because the next president, whether he is Barack Obama or John McCain, aims to control emissions through a "cap and trade" system, electric utilities such as Dominion have the chance to control their pollution destiny.
"The utility industry is asking for a free allocation system, where [the government] would give [carbon] credits away based on historic past emissions levels," Cale Jaffe, a staff attorney at the nonprofit Southern Environmental Law centre, said.
Thus if companies build new power plants now, Jaffe explained, they stand to benefit from larger carbon credits in the future under a free allocation system. "You have a perverse reduced incentive … they want to build as many coal plants as possible," he added.