OPINION | GLEN HOOKS: Advantage signaling

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The phrase “virtue signaling” has jumped into the public lexicon in recent months.

Generally it is used to mock those who engage in less than meaningful displays of do-gooders while avoiding activities and work that would make a real difference. Think of someone who posts a heartfelt Facebook plea for the need to support small businesses and then buys a Kindle from Amazon instead of going to the local bookstore.

talk, don’t walk

Today I find it hard to find a better example of signaling virtue than the testimonies of our nation’s largest electric utility companies. On the one hand, almost all major energy suppliers have publicly committed to reducing or eliminating their reliance on burning fossil fuels to generate electricity. Utility after utility have issued press releases about plans to become “carbon neutral” or “zero carbon” in the next few decades. One of the country’s largest electric utilities, American Electric Power (AEP), has committed to becoming carbon-free by 2050 and to reduce its carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2030.

Given that promise, I’m puzzled as to why SWEPCO — an AEP subsidiary that operates power plants in Arkansas — plans to continue burning dirty coal at its two Arkansas power plants and likely build a new fracked gas facility in our state.

On Sept. 15, SWEPCO announced that it plans to keep its aging and dirty Flint Creek coal-fired power plant operating through 2038. Flint Creek began polluting Benton County in 1978, 43 years ago. Instead of taking steps to meet its climate pledge and retire the plant, SWEPCO now plans to bill Arkansas taxpayers more than $26 million to retrofit the plant and keep it running.

SWEPCO also said it is likely to build a new fracked gas facility in Arkansas. Methane, the main component of “natural gas”, is at least 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. But there is nothing “natural” about gas. Just like coal and oil, it is an polluting fossil fuel that is causing extraordinary damage to the climate, our health and clean water.

From its origin in wasteful fracking, to its transportation through leaky pipelines ripping through our communities, to the point where it is burned in power plants or gas appliances in our homes, “natural gas” is dirty and a threat to our health. If methane releases during the fracking process and the pipeline system are taken into account, the contribution of gas-fired power plants to the climate crisis is almost as bad as that of coal. Burning fracked gas is not a way to reduce SWEPCO’s contribution to climate degradation.

Either SWEPCO is serious about delivering on its climate pledge or it isn’t.

In addition, AEP recently announced its rejection of the proposed Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP), which is now making its way through Congress. The CEPP would allocate billions of dollars in federal funding to encourage utilities to provide more clean energy to our communities. It’s exactly the kind of incentive that should warm the hearts of climate-conscious utilities who care about clean energy. But surprisingly, SWEPCO’s parent company is against it.

To its credit, SWEPCO recently fulfilled its efforts to bring new wind energy to Arkansas and Louisiana and has some additional plans to build more renewable energy. At the Sierra Club, we sincerely commend the utility for taking this important and meaningful step. But if SWEPCO is serious about delivering on its parent company’s commitment to be a zero-carbon utility, it can’t extend the life of its dirty Flint Creek coal-fired power plant while increasing its reliance on fracked gas and defying clean energy legislation.

Clean and affordable solar power is currently powering cities, counties and businesses across the state, while low-cost wind power imported from our neighboring states is lowering electricity rates for Arkansas taxpayers. The Sierra Club is calling on SWEPCO and all utilities in Arkansas to help us build healthier, safer communities together. It’s time to increase our state’s investment in clean energy that will create family-sustaining jobs, reduce utility bills, and improve the health of our citizens and our environment.

Communities like Fayetteville and Clarksville are making great strides to bring clean energy to their cities, while utility-scale solar investments are making a big difference in Lake Village, Stuttgart, Camden, West Memphis and other major 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 turning away from polluting energy sources. Investing in clean energy makes good economic and ecological sense.

We’ve all seen AEP/SWEPCO issue press releases and make public statements about its commitment to addressing climate change, and the Sierra Club is supporting this important change from a traditionally fossil-fuel focused utility. But saying the right thing about climate while increasing reliance on dirty fuels is nothing short of a classic sign of virtue.

For our ecosystems to function, we must live in healthy harmony, build healthy and safe communities, and collaborate with others across the borders that too often divided us. For the good of our home state and its people, let us be consistent, walk the talk and live our values. Virtue in itself means almost nothing without accompanying action.

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