Op-Ed: The Smokescreen of Coal

by | Jul 18, 2013

As we exit the last Public Service Commission meeting, there is something nagging me about the rhetoric that surrounds this process. It’s all the caterwauling about coal.

The actual purpose of these meetings is to “informally” review how Alabama Power and the PSC decide what we pay for electricity. We’ll come back to that.

When announcing these meetings, the head of the Commission, Twinkle Cavanaugh, explicitly stated that she would protect coal interests at all costs. It’s confusing because the PSC has no jurisdiction over the coal industry. Her job and the PSC’s mission is: to ensure a regulatory balance between regulated companies and consumers in order to provide consumers with safe, adequate and reliable services at rates that are equitable and economical.

Let’s examine the facts.

Is Alabama Power burning less coal? Yes. Their reasons are tied directly to maximizing profits. Other forms of energy like natural gas are cheaper. Oh yeah, and coal from other places is cheaper. Alabama Power has imported from outside the state an average of 70 percent of the coal it burns since 2008.

That bears repeating. Alabama Power is importing 70 percent of the coal it burns in its power plants.

Despite these economic realities, the data shows that Alabama’s coal industry is doing just fine.

Over the past year, the number of coal mining jobs has actually had an inverse relationship with the amount of coal burned by Alabama Power Company. The Alabama coal industry has nothing to do with Alabama Power’s rate-setting or energy planning processes.

alabama coal

So what’s really behind all the coal rhetoric at the PSC meetings and by the PSC President?

Drummond. Did you just shiver a little? Maybe you also read Bloomberg’s article titled, “Alabama Coal Billionaire Battles Murder Suits as Prices Ebb.” In February, al.com reported that Drummond Company funded Cavanaugh’s campaign for President of the PSC to the tune of $80,000.

Their interests are about their own profits and not about the well-being of Alabamians. Drummond imports coal from Colombia to Alabama Power and have a long-standing partnership that makes both companies billions of dollars.

Let’s get back to the issue of what Alabama Power charges for electricity. Alabama spends the most in the nation on retail electricity as a portion of our GDP. Commercial customers pay the highest rates in the Southeast and residential customers pay the second highest bills nationally.

Instead of scrutinizing Alabama Power’s exorbitant prices and profits, Cavanaugh has been hyper-fixated on topics she claimed would not be part of the rate proceedings. Cavanaugh has rhetorically and erroneously tied the well-being of Alabama’s coal mining industry to the burning of coal in Alabama Power plants.

Enough. Let’s deal with the real issue at hand.

Stacie Propst, PhD, is an experienced health advocate, public policy expert, scientist and educator. She is the executive director of GASP, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting for clean, healthy air for the state of Alabama. [email protected]

About The GASP Team
Gasp is a nonprofit health advocacy organization based in Birmingham, Ala. Our mission is to reduce air pollution, to educate the public on the health risks associated with dirty air, and to encourage community leaders to serve as role models for clean air and clean energy production.
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