Eminger Makes Case for Keeping Wyoming Coal Flowing to Arkansas

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You load 16 tons, and what do you get?

About $200, if you’re selling low-sulfur Wyoming coal for use in two Arkansas power plants that Entergy Arkansas plans to shut down this decade.

But Randy Eminger of Bella Vista and the Arkansas Affordable Energy Coalition are committed to keeping Arkansas as a coal customer, and he’s challenging Entergy’s coal-plant closure plan in federal court, arguing that state utility regulators haven’t vetted it properly.

Soft coal from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin fuels electricity production at two Entergy-majority-owned plants, Independence in Newark and White Bluff in Redfield (Jefferson County). “Low-sulfur coal made Wyoming the No. 1 coal-producing state in the nation,” Eminger says, but he admits prices are low in an industry in decline, $12.50 a ton. That’s the arithmetic: 16 tons, $200.

And here’s the trend: Coal has fallen from fulfilling 45% of the nation’s electricity fuel market when President Barack Obama was elected in 2008 to 25% now, Eminger said, and prospects look bleak for the coming Biden administration.

The state of Wyoming, seeing all customers as crucial these days, devoted a $1 million biennial appropriation to promoting continued coal sales, and half of that money went to another of Eminger’s groups, the Energy Policy Network. EPN made national headlines last week when National Public Radio reported on “dark money” influences in the legal battle to stop Entergy’s 2018 deal with environmentalists to shut down coal use at White Bluff by 2028 and at Independence by the end of 2030.

Eminger makes a strong case that “dark money” is an inaccurate description for a legislative appropriation, Wyoming Senate Bill 4 of 2020, that gave Gov. Mark Gordon discretion over a million-dollar coal-promotion fund. Gordon announced how he planned to spend it at a news conference, Eminger pointed out. “How is that dark money?” he asked.

Eminger ended up with $500,000 in Wyoming money over two years, he explained.

That money’s emergence in an Arkansas court case, though, wasn’t widely known until NPR’s report, and Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge told the national radio network that she was unaware of the connection when she joined the Arkansas Affordability Coalition’s legal challenge. It also wasn’t common knowledge in Arkansas that the coalition and the Wyoming group were both started by Eminger.

The federal challenge in the Eastern District of Arkansas, Western Division, awaits a ruling from U.S. District Judge Kristine G. Baker.

Eminger’s groups, joined by Rutledge, argue that the state needs a base load of reliable energy from coal, at stable prices, even though other production fuels, including natural gas, are now generally more economical.

Eminger represents groups like Nucor Steel of Charlotte, North Carolina, which has major operations in Mississippi County with close to 1,000 employees there, and the power-hungry industries that make up Arkansas Electric Energy Consumers Inc., another nonprofit group belonging to Eminger’s coalition.

Eminger compared Wyoming’s promotion of its coal industry to actions Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson might take to promote major Arkansas industries like agriculture. He also laid out his clients’ business case for keeping coal-fired power flowing. The base power is needed for reliability and stability, Eminger said, who cited California’s smoky wildfires as evidence that solar and renewable power sources are more vulnerable.

Eminger said his coalition includes the Arkansas Electric Energy Consumers, “all the way from Acme Brick and the Arkansas steel industry to Lion Oil, Riceland Foods, pulp and paper industries, and others.

“Arkansas Gas Consumers is part of the coalition as well,” Eminger continued, “because if you close the coal plants down, there’s limited transmission gas transmission in the state of Arkansas. These industrial folks that use natural gas, they see the coal plants to some extent being replaced with natural gas units, and if that happens, then the price of gas will go up.”

Entergy shares ownership of the Redfield and Newark plants with Arkansas Electric Cooperatives, which has a 35% share. The two Independence units, with a capacity of 1,700 megawatts, came online in 1983 and ‘84. The White Bluff plant in Redfield, with similar generation capacity, was built in 1980. Both are within 10-15 years of the projected end of their life span.

Dozens of U.S. coal-fired plants have been retired in the last decade, and coal-generated electricity is at a 42-year low in the country, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Entergy, the state’s largest electric utility with more than 700,000 customers, has seen coal fall from generating 20% of its power to less than 4% over the past few decades, partly a result of the utility’s continued reliance on its durable and emissions-free nuclear workhorse, Arkansas Nuclear One. That plant, in Russellville, carries some 70% of Entergy’s load. But the investor-owned utility has also taken increasing advantage of low-cost natural gas to generate a greater supply of its electricity, approaching 25%.

Arkansas’ cooperatives get half their power from coal generation, though they, too, are phasing it out.

The not-for-profit electric cooperatives, in addition to their stake in the Entergy-majority plants, own 50% of the Flint Creek plant near Gentry and 11% of the John Turk plant near Hope, Arkansas’ newest coal plant. Southwestern Electric Power Co. of Shreveport, which serves nearly 120,000 customers in western Arkansas, gets 45% of its generation from coal, including power from the 624-megawatt Turk plant, opened in 2012.

“The role of the co-ops in coal use pollution has been even worse than Entergy,” one longtime observer said, citing the Turk plant partnership and the cooperatives’ larger percentage of coal in their resource mix.

Rutledge’s devotion to protecting the fossil fuel industry leaves the environment vulnerable to mercury, carbon dioxide, haze, air particulates and coal ash, the critic said, and environmentalists and business executives questioned whether she and Eminger should be interfering in a utility’s business decision to shut down plants.

Eminger said that utilities should indeed make their own decisions, but that Entergy’s shutdown plan was never reviewed by the Public Service Commission because the changes were seen as a federal requirement under Obama administration policy, but that the federal requirement had changed under President Donald Trump, a fossil-fuel ally.

Since it no longer faces the federal requirement, Entergy’s plan should face PSC review, Eminger said, and that argument underpins his court case.

“The plan to close these plants, along with one natural gas plant, Lake Catherine, would remove  18% of the total electric generation in the state of Arkansas,” Eminger said.

“And we don’t think they should be able to do that without going through the Public Service Commission, and having a case and an investigation and having to prove why this is the thing they should do.”

Arkansas Sierra Club Director Glen Hooks told Arkansas Business that burning coal is “the single dirtiest way to generate electricity,” and that it no longer makes economic sense.

“That’s why there aren’t any coal-burning power plants being built anywhere in the U.S., and it’s why 329 of the nation’s 530 coal plants have now either retired or announced plans to retire in just the last ten years.”

He said all of the state’s major coal-using utilities are moving away from it, and investing in solar and wind power. Hooks noted that closing the Independence and White Bluff plants is part of that commitment. “SWEPCO has recently won approval for one of the largest wind facilities in the world, and various electric cooperatives across our state are recognizing the value of clean energy to their ratepayers.” 

Renewable energy is a win-win for the state, he said. “Retiring dirty coal and moving to clean energy means cleaner air, healthier Arkansans, and good-paying Arkansas jobs. … Utilities and environmental groups know this to be true, and more and more of our elected officials are seeing the benefits to our state.”