Coal-fired foolishness

Published May 17, 2007

Global warming may be strong enough to melt giant glaciers and spawn killer storms, but it is no match for an even more powerful force: congressional pork. After giving lip service to the need to reduce greenhouse gases, lawmakers are about to take back their promises.

Democrats and Republicans alike favor funding a tax-subsidized loan program to help rural electric cooperatives build $35-billion worth of conventional coal-fired power plants over the next decade. Those plants will spew enough greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to offset emissions reductions promised by federal and state regulations, the Washington Post reported.

Florida, a major contributor of greenhouse gases, is just starting to take the problem seriously. Recognizing the potential impact on the state from stronger hurricanes and rising sea levels, Gov. Charlie Crist and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink recently called for action on climate change. If Congress subsidizes a new 750-megawatt coal plant planned by Seminole Electric Cooperative of Tampa, however, such talk is meaningless.

There are other problems with the appropriation beyond its effect on global warming. The program begun during the Depression to bring electricity and phones to isolated homes and communities is now an anachronism. The so-called "rural" cooperatives often operate in what have become booming metropolitan areas.

The program costs taxpayers billions and gives certain electric companies an unfair edge over others. As Scott Hodge, a critic of the program, wrote for the conservative Heritage Foundation 10 years ago: "Last time I checked, just about everybody in America except the Unabomber had electricity and telephones."

Yet once Congress gives a special interest a lucrative privilege, it is difficult to take it away. Even the Bush administration called for an end to the loan-subsidy program, but then 3, 000 members of rural co-ops from around the country descended on Congress.

The outcome was predictable. "So are we supposed to tell members of Congress that you've got to be willing to sacrifice your seat for the sake of energy efficiency?" Glenn English, chief executive of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, told the Post. "I don't think the political community wants to take out the knife and commit hara-kiri."

True, there often is little courage in politics. Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Monticello, of all people, is a key supporter of the loan program that would bring more greenhouse gases and poisonous mercury to Florida skies. And we'll see if we can count on Crist and Sink to speak against the expenditure.

Any member of Congress who votes for putting tax dollars into conventional coal-fired power plants and then claims to be concerned about global warming is full of, well, hot air.