Lawmakers defend coal power in S.C.


WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of South Carolina legislators, echoing the position of the state-owned power company, traveled here Wednesday to urge the state's Congressional delegation to find ways to allow the state to avoid an expected federal crackdown on greenhouse gases from coal-fired power plants.

Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, a Charleston Republican, and the five legislators who accompanied him hand-delivered a report to the Congressional delegation that publicly reveals for the first time that almost two-thirds of South Carolinians rely on coal for power.

Many of those people are poor, and need the cheap power coal produces, the report said.

While more than 50 percent of the power generated in South Carolina comes from nuclear power plants, at least 20 percent of it goes out-of-state.

McConnell said the 45-page report is a sobering assessment of the state's energy situation.

"The fate of South Carolinians and their pocketbooks will be sealed mainly by what actions are taken here in Washington, not in Columbia," McConnell said to Congress members, who were in full attendance for the unprecedented meeting. The state legislators wanted to alert them about the consequences in South Carolina before Congress designs a national climate-change policy, which could happen as early as this year.

The report indicates that coal-fired power plants, like the one Santee Cooper plans for the Pee Dee, are a needed stop-gap measure for the state to avoid rolling brownouts and possible blackouts before proposed nuclear power plants can come online in the next decade, at the earliest.

If Congress decides to tax carbon emissions or require the purchase of pollution credits, the price of coal-generated energy in South Carolina would shoot up, legislators warned. Estimates on increases to the average household electrical bill vary from $33 to $600 yearly, depending on how federal legislation might be written.

Environmentalists quickly dished out criticism for the report, which they classified as shortsighted. "This report repeatedly cites the impact of rising energy costs on low-income folks," Sierra Club of South Carolina Chairwoman Susan Corbett said. "But considering how little our utilities have done to help people reduce their bills through efficiency and conservation, we have to question the sincerity of the report's authors."

McConnell said the report deals with matter-of-fact issues that carry real-life consequences, such as the possibility of widespread energy shortages. "If we run out, it's too late to build a plant," he said. "You've got to plan for that."

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Limits on greenhouse gas emissions would present a unique challenge in South Carolina. The report asserts that emission caps would be a burden in the state with a consumption rate that is fifth-highest in the nation and a median household income that ranks 40th. The problem is compounded by poorly insulated homes and a climate that demands heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer. Projections that the population of 4 million will swell by more than a million by 2030 also is a factor.

The report, ordered by McConnell, was drafted by the State Regulation of Public Utilities Review Committee, made up of legislators and members of the public.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said that to help sell the legislators' plan to Washington, state leaders should work on developing a plan that will show how South Carolina will wean itself off traditional energy sources. "I could absorb one more coal plant as long as it is efficient and as modern as possible, but the goal for me is to push the state and the nation away from carbon pollutants," Graham said.

South Carolina does not have the means for generating renewable energy sources the way other states might, such as solar-energy capabilities in the Southwest, wind power in the Great Plains or hydro-generation in the Pacific Northwest, according to the report. The legislators urged the Congressmen to keep that in mind as the country moves to put alternative and renewable energy requirements on states.

"The alternative energy sources that are available, say out West and in the Midwest, aren't available in South Carolina," 1st Congressional District U.S. Rep. Henry Brown, R-S.C., said. "To put everyone in the same formula, I think, is going to really penalize the users here in South Carolina."