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OPINION | GLEN HOOKS: Virtue signaling

Firm’s pledges don’t match plans by GLEN HOOKS SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | September 23, 2021 at 2:58 a.m.

The phrase "virtue signaling" has leaped into the public lexicon in recent months.

In general, it is used to deride those who engage in less-than-meaningful displays of do-gooderism, while simultaneously avoiding activities and work that would make a real difference. Think, perhaps, of someone posting a heartfelt Facebook plea about the need to support small businesses then buying a Kindle on Amazon instead of going to the local bookstore.

Talking the talk, not walking the walk.

These days, I'm hard-pressed to find a better example of virtue signaling than statements from our nation's largest electric utilities. On the one hand, almost every major utility has made public pledges to reduce or eliminate their reliance on burning fossil fuels to generate electricity. Utility after utility has issued press releases about plans to become "carbon neutral" or "zero carbon" over the next few decades. One of the nation's biggest utilities, American Electric Power (AEP), has pledged to be carbon-free by 2050 while reducing its carbon emissions 80 percent by 2030.

Given that pledge, I'm befuddled why SWEPCO--an AEP subsidiary that operates power plants in Arkansas--is planning to continue burning dirty coal at its two Arkansas power plants and is likely to build a new fracked-gas plant in our state.

On Sept. 15, SWEPCO stated that it plans to continue operating the aging and dirty Flint Creek coal plant until 2038. Flint Creek began polluting Benton County back in 1978, 43 years ago. Instead of taking steps to fulfill its climate pledge and transition the plant to retirement, SWEPCO now wants to bill Arkansas ratepayers more than $26 million to retrofit the plant and keep it chugging along.

SWEPCO also shared that it will likely build a new fracked-gas plant in Arkansas. Methane, the primary component of "natural" gas, is at least 80 times as potent as carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. But there's nothing "natural" about gas. Just like coal and oil, it's a polluting fossil fuel that does extraordinary damage to the climate, our health, and clean water.

From its origin in wasteful fracking, to its transport across leaking pipelines that rip through our communities, to the point where it is burned at power plants or gas appliances in our homes, "natural" gas is dirty and a threat to our health. When methane leaks during the fracking process and pipeline system are taken into account, gas plants' contribution to the climate crisis are nearly as bad as coal. Burning fracked gas is no way to reduce SWEPCO's contribution to climate disruption.

Either SWEPCO is sincerely working to achieve its climate pledge or it isn't.

In addition, AEP recently announced its opposition to the proposed "Clean Electricity Performance Program" (CEPP) now working its way through Congress. The CEPP would provide billions in federal funds to encourage utilities to add more clean energy for our communities. This is exactly the kind of incentive that should warm the hearts of climate-conscious utilities who care about clean energy. But amazingly, SWEPCO's parent company is in opposition.

To its credit, SWEPCO has recently delivered on its efforts to bring new wind energy into Arkansas and Louisiana and has some additional plans to build more renewable energy. We at the Sierra Club sincerely commend the utility for this important and meaningful step. But if SWEPCO is serious about fulfilling its parent company's commitment to be a carbon-free utility, it cannot extend the life of the dirty Flint Creek coal plant while increasing its reliance on fracked gas and opposing clean-energy legislation.

Clean and affordable solar energy is currently powering cities, counties, and businesses all across the Natural State while inexpensive wind energy imported from our neighboring states is lowering electric rates for Arkansas ratepayers. Sierra Club calls on SWEPCO and all Arkansas utilities to help us build healthier and safer communities together. It's time to increase our state's investment in clean energy, which will create family-sustaining jobs, reduce power bills, and improve the health of our citizens and our environment.

Communities like Fayetteville and Clarksville are making great strides toward powering their cities with clean energy, while utility-scale solar investments are making a huge difference in Lake Village, Stuttgart, Camden, West Memphis, and other great Arkansas cities. Where we once saw a tiny number of clean-energy companies in our state, we now see dozens of companies. These Arkansas leaders understand that our communities are best served by transitioning away from polluting sources of power. Investing in clean energy just makes sense economically and environmentally.

We've all watched AEP/SWEPCO issue press releases and make public statements about its commitment to tackling climate change, and the Sierra Club supports this important change from a traditionally fossil fuel-centered utility. But saying the right thing on climate while increasing reliance on dirty fuels amounts to nothing more than classic virtue signaling.

In order for our ecosystems to work, we must be living in sound harmony, building healthy and safe communities and working with others across the lines of difference that too often used to divide us. For the sake of our home state and her people, let's be consistent, walk our talk, and live our values. Virtue by itself means almost nothing without accompanying action.

Glen Hooks is a lifelong Arkansan and director of the Arkansas Sierra Club.

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