Mining for a compromise on coal plant

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March 12, 2012

9:48 PM

The words I seem to hear most when I’m listening to the news are “economy” and “recovery.” Since the 2008 financial crisis, these words have become inescapable, and the upcoming 2012 election — accompanied by the Republican debates — has only served to amplify their usage. There is no doubt that the United States is still on the road to economic recovery nearly five years after the housing bubble burst, evident by the most recent unemployment numbers, hovering around 8.3 percent of the labor force. Given these circumstances, it is only natural that politicians have chosen to focus their rhetoric and legislation on job creation.

Locally, this debate is relevant to the proposed construction of a coal plant in Surry County by the Old Dominion Electric Cooperative. Proponents of the plant cite job creation as one of the major benefits of the construction, which is an appealing motivation to allow ODEC to operate the coal plant in the region. Opponents of the coal plant, including the College of William and Mary’s own Student Environmental Action Coalition, are lobbying hard to prevent the plans from moving forward, citing first and foremost the potentially devastating effects­ that the plant could have on the local environment and ecosystem. Furthermore, groups opposed to ODEC are claiming that the Cooperative is primarily motivated by corporate greed without any concern for the impact of their actions on the local community.

This ongoing battle contains a multitude of political hot button disputes that have been circulating at the national level — including job creation versus environmental impact — as seen in the debate over the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Additionally, the concern that corporate lobbyists have greater political influence than individuals can be seen in the debate over taxes imposed upon corporations and high net worth individuals, as well as the proposed “Buffet Rule.”

One does not have to search for long to find myriad debates across the country featuring similar points to those raised in the Surry Coal plant battle. Being from Pittsburgh, I am constantly immersed in the debate over Marcellus shale oil drilling and the process of “fracking,” which seeks to extract large reserves of recently discovered natural gas from the Western Pennsylvania region. Environmental groups have been quite outspoken about the negative effects of fracking on local waterways and their ecosystems. Natural gas companies, on the other hand, have been aggressively promoting their cause at a variety of venues with ads almost exclusively highlighting job creation and economic growth in the region.

The debate over the Surry Coal plant is not specifically unique to the region surrounding Williamsburg. These types of conflicts seem to intensify in harder economic times, when the prospect of new jobs is appealing to politicians and individuals in the local community. In the end, recessionary periods make it more difficult to balance the long-term viability of a particular region with immediate employment and cash flow benefits.

When it comes to the construction of the plant, the best solution will be finding a middle ground between the two opposing camps. Job creation cannot come at the expense of the local ecosystem, but we can promote both causes at the same time. Experience has shown that organizations such as ODEC do not have the incentive to operate their plants in such a way that minimizes negative environmental effects. If, however, the local government ensures that there are enough regulations in place, ODEC will be forced to operate the plant in a manner that minimizes harmful effects on the environment.

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  • Derek Bluemling

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