Arizonans still clinging to their coal

In the shadow of President Obama’s pronouncements on climate change and the future of coal, policymakers in my state of Arizona are asking, “Should Arizona continue to depend on coal?” Writing as one who participates in Arizona’s energy resource-planning process, I would contend that Arizona cannot afford not to, notwithstanding the EPA and the president’s attempts to have it otherwise.

While natural gas, renewable energy and energy efficiency are playing an increasingly significant role in Arizona utilities’ energy portfolios, coal remains a critical resource in ensuring low rates and reliable, 24-7 baseload power.

For example, Arizona’s second-most-populous city, Tucson, derives roughly 75 percent of its power from coal generation — no small percentage for a town planted thick with self-professed environmentalists.

Coal’s principal downside — its public health effects — is real. But its upside — reliable, affordable, abundant power — merits its central role in Arizona’s long-term economy. On the key metrics of cost, scale, power density and energy density, no energy source matches hydrocarbons. Not one.

Policymakers must strike an equilibrium between environmental protection and energy costs. But proponents of weighing “environmental externalities” and the invariably subjective “unpaid costs” of coal upset this balance: They would place their thumbs on the scales to render expensive — and politically favored — energy sources cheaper by making cheaper — and less politically correct — energy sources more expensive.

Driving up the price of coal-fired power to render costlier sources of energy comparatively “cheaper” — a policy prerogative of the left — is analogous to shackling a champion athlete with weights to grant a novice an advantage in a sprint. Moreover, advocates of calculating the “externalities” of coal infrequently apply such criteria to renewable energy and overlook, for example, the substantial land-use — “energy sprawl” — required by much solar and wind power.

Economic growth is linked to affordable electricity, and cheap coal-fired power, for developing nations, remains an antidote to poverty. Those seeking to saddle coal-fired plants, such as Arizona’s Navajo Generating Station, with onerous regulations to reflect its “true cost” to public health rarely ponder the toll on public health exacted by the economic harm such regulations inflict.

Indeed, to force a hypothetical Arizonan who cannot afford health insurance to pay substantially more for energy because a politician decides its price fails to account for coal’s “true cost” to health is ironic, to put it mildly.

A politicized and intransigent EPA has shown a breezy disregard for the likely effects of its regulatory rampage on Arizona’s ratepayers. Though it professes to act in the social interest, damaging every Arizonan’s pocketbook becomes, collectively, yet another social cost.

Meantime, as Arizonans plea for regulatory relief, the president derides opponents of his energy policies as “the Flat Earth Society.” Arizonans are accustomed to being on the receiving end of this president’s ire. Given the Navajo Generating Station’s critical role in delivering power to pump Central Arizona Project water, which makes our state habitable, I am confident Arizonans will persist in clinging to their coal.

The ongoing debate on coal-fired power will bring into high relief the views of those who wish to use government to inflate energy prices artificially, for the sake of perceived social goods, and those who value the pocketbooks of individual ratepayers, and who are keenly averse to raising artificially the price of power in this economy.

Bob Stump is chairman of the Arizona Corporation Commission, a statewide elected five-member body that regulates most Arizona utilities. He also served three terms in the Arizona House of Representatives.