Nov. 19 2008 12:00 AM

The weather was mild Thursday night as the Lansing Board of Water and Light’s citizens’ panel met publicly to consider the merits of a proposed new coal-fired power plant, but the barometer was falling.

Days after new coal plant rulings in Wisconsin and Utah clouded the regulatory landscape, panel co-chairman Frank Kelley brushed off another panel member’s concerns over growing anti-coal momentum as “idealistic.” Kelley, the former state attorney general, went on the record last month in favor of a new, primarily coal-fired plant proposed for Rogers City.

Kelly also said Thursday the BWL’s panel’s final deliberations will take place behind closed doors.

The last comment came in response to Steve Rall of Lansing Can Do Better, a local group opposing the proposed plant. Rall had asked the panel when members would discuss the pros and cons of a new coal plant and alternatives to it and whether the discussion would be public.

“How can we participate in that discussion?” Rall asked.

“In other words, you want to join the panel?” Kelley retorted.

Rall said he only wanted to know whether the panel would deliberate publicly.

“We’re going to do the discussion by ourselves,” Kelley said.

Earlier, the panel took criticism for holding meetings in the daytime. In a phone interview Tuesday, Kelley framed the public meetings as vehicles for gathering input.

“After [the panel has] taken all this testimony, at some point they’ve got to digest it and sit down and write a report,” he said. “They’re not going to write it on the sidewalk someplace.”

Kelley and Paul Hufnagel, president of the Greater Lansing Labor Council, chair the officially titled Citizens Advisory Panel, which BWL set up to consider a plan to build a plant that would be powered about 70 percent by coal and the rest by biomass. It would replace the Eckert plant, which BWL has determined will be obsolete in 10 to 15 years.

Thursday’s meeting repeatedly touched on the swiftly changing regulatory climate, globally, nationally and in Michigan.

Joan Nelson, a panel member and director of the Allen Neighborhood Center, raised the issue first.

“I’ve been looking at the trends,” Nelson said, turning to other panel members. “New Zealand just established a 10-year moratorium on new coal plants.”

Nelson recalled former Vice President Al Gore’s declaration that urged civil disobedience against new coal plants. Coal-fired plants are a major source of the carbon dioxide that drives global warming.

“It feels to me like a very unpredictable moment to be planning to move on this,” Nelson said. “I don’t know if any committee members feel the same way.”

“It’s interesting. I appreciate your views,” Kelley said. “That’s an idealistic view, and I understand it.”
For his part, Kelley affirmed the goals stated in a presentation that evening by George Stojic, BWL’s executive director of strategic planning and development.

“The Lansing BWL has the reputation of being one of the best municipally owned plants in the country,” Kelley said. “It’s always been very reliable and has had very low rates. That’s their basic philosophy, and they’re not going to change it.”

At a public meeting in Rogers City Oct. 29, Kelley spoke in favor of a primarily coal-fired power plant proposed in that area.

“[Kelley] left no room for doubt or interpretation that he was firmly in support of the project,” wrote Mike Modrzynski of The Alpena News.

Kelley said Tuesday that the Rogers City plant is different than the proposed plant in Lansing.

“It’s way ahead of us. It’s got community support and tentative governmental approval,” Kelley said.

“All the political bodies in the town have voted for it,” he said. “There’s a tremendous groundswell to build a plant.”

BWL spokesman Mark Nixon said he was unaware of Kelley’s endorsement of the Rogers City plant.

"In any event, Mr. Kelley and his 10 co-panelists are charged with reviewing the BWL plans for new generation. I'm confident they will accomplish that task, fairly and objectively."

Stojic said the BWL’s proposed 350-megawatt coal plant, which would replace the aging Eckert Power Station and burn up to 30 percent biomass or more, is the best way to maintain low-cost, reliable service.

He brought a lot of statistical ammunition along, but last week’s events showed how fast the field can shift.

Tuesday, Nov. 11, Wisconsin state regulators voted to reject a plan by Alliant Energy Corp. to build a $1.3 billion coal plant in Cassville, near the Mississippi River. The regulators cited uncertainty over impending greenhouse gas regulations and noted that the price tag for the plant went up 60 percent from 2007 to 2008 because of rising construction costs.

Anne Woiwode, director of the Sierra Club’s Mackinac Chapter, spoke about the Wisconsin development at Thursday’s meeting.

“I would urge you to look at this as a potentially comparable situation,” Woiwode said.

Hours before Thursday night’s meeting, the EPA’s highest decision-making board delayed a permit application for the proposed Bonanza power plant in Utah.

Administrative law masochists are only starting to parse the new ruling’s double-negative legalese. It doesn’t mandate sweeping carbon dioxide regulations, as some environmentalists have claimed. The ruling does say, however, that when considering permits for new power plants, the EPA can no longer cling to the argument that it doesn’t have the authority to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act.

“We recognize that this is an issue of national scope that has implications far beyond this individual permitting proceeding,” the Utah decision reads. The EPA board recommended a nationwide resolution of the issue, in effect punting to Barack Obama’s EPA.

Woiwode called the ruling “a major game changer” with ramifications for all 50 states.

Bob McCann, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, disagreed. The DEQ handles permits for new coal-fired plants. In Michigan, four such plants are in the application process and one (at Northern Michigan University in Marquette) is facing a legal challenge.

“Most likely, this specific ruling doesn’t mean anything to Michigan,” McCann said. But McCann said the DEQ is waiting to see what the EPA will do when Obama takes office in January.

“There’s a general recognition that EPA will likely have some sort of announcement on federal CO2 early next year,” McCann said. “Michigan, like every other state, is waiting to hear what that is.”

“It seems pretty clear that something’s coming down the pike,” Woiwode told Stojic at Thursday’s meeting, “but you haven’t spelled out what your fallback position is, and that’s a major cost.”

Stojic disagreed. “To a certain extent, we can manage our fuel, and we can manage our carbon emissions,” he said. Stojic said the proposed coal plant would be more efficient, and therefore spew less carbon dioxide, and the BWL already anticipated cap-and-trade regulations on greenhouse gases in its model.

In response to Stojic’s claims that coal is cost effective, Tremaine Phillips of Lansing, representing the Michigan Environmental Council, urged the panel to think of cost differently.

“The only reason coal is cheaper than wind and solar is that it’s a sign of market failure,” Phillips said. “You’re not taking in the true cost of coal — health and environmental costs.”

Phillips said the issue is not only economic, but cultural, citing Grand Rapids’ push to buy and produce renewable energy. “It’s their culture and forward way of thinking that has created economic growth,” Tremaine said. “This coal plant is going to be a sign, whether we like it or not, of the culture of this community here in Lansing.”

Later in the evening, another panel member called for caution. “We’re in a flux area right now,” David O’Leary said. “Within the next three or four years, I think there’s going to be some major changes.”

O’Leary, who chairs O’Leary Paint Co., brought up the possibility that the federal government might “come out and help us build a nuclear plant” as part of an infrastructure or stimulus package.

“I know that sounds off the wall, but I think before we go out and spend a billion dollars on a coal plant, we should look at everything off the wall,” O’Leary said.

Kelley was skeptical. “Does anybody in their right mind say we should put a nuclear plant over here?” he said Tuesday.

“I shut down the nuclear plant at Enrico Fermi II after they went $100 million over cost and it didn’t generate anything.”

Kelley commended BWL’s solar and landfill gas initiatives, but doubted alternatives alone could replace coal.

“We’ll buy as much wind as we can, but this isn’t the windiest state, and it isn’t the sunniest,” Kelley said.

BWL spokesman Nixon said the next citizens’ panel meeting will probably be set for early next year, “possibly in late January.”