Dubbed the "Pee Dee Energy Campus," the 600-megawatt plant is at the center of a vigorous debate over the state's future energy needs and sources. Opposition from these top government prosecutors shows how the high-stakes debate over Santee Cooper's Pee Dee project has landed firmly on the national stage.
In a letter dated January 22 to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, the eight attorneys general urged the agency to deny Santee Cooper a permit and focus instead on cleaner technologies to produce electricity. Citing a compact by 10 northeastern states to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the prosecutors said the Pee Dee plant would release 9 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year, effectively canceling reductions planned in their states.
Attorneys general from California, New York, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont signed the letter.
"I think it's extraordinary that they have written this letter," said Blan Holman, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center. "It shows the plant doesn't just have significance in the Pee Dee and in South Carolina, but that it's part of a national debate."
Santee Cooper wants to build a $1 billion coal plant on the banks of the Great Pee Dee River in Florence County. The state-owned utility says if it doesn't move forward with the generators, parts of South Carolina could face blackouts and brownouts by 2013.
The utility's plan enjoys wide support from the state's manufacturing community.
Laura Varn, Santee Cooper vice president of corporate communications, said DHEC doesn't have any legal authority to order the utility to reduce carbon dioxide emissions for the Pee Dee project. Lawmakers are pushing new laws that would tax carbon-based emissions. But Varn said that Santee Cooper has to operate under existing laws, and that its Pee Dee plan meets or does better than current pollution rules require.
The letter urging DHEC to deny Santee Cooper a permit for a new coal-powered power generator. In their letter, the attorneys general, including aggressive prosecutors such as Andrew Cuomo of New York and Jerry Brown of California, said that "climate change is the single greatest environmental challenge facing the world today," and that state and federal laws require Santee Cooper to use the "best available technology" to reduce greenhouse gases.
The prosecutors said Santee Cooper should consider a plant fueled by natural gas, biomass or gasified coal, technologies that produce less carbon dioxide than traditional plants. Santee Cooper has said that these technologies are either unproven or too expensive, and that it plans to use state-of-the-art technology in the Pee Dee complex.
In 2007, 53 coal-fired plants across the nation were canceled or delayed in 2007, according to Global Energy Decisions, a company that tracks power plants for the Department of Energy. As concerns mount about global warming, states are taking aggressive stands on pollution from their neighbors.
In recent years, North Carolina's attorney general cited South Carolina and 12 other states as contributing to North Carolina's air pollution. New Jersey sued a utility in Pennsylvania last month over its air emissions. Last year, the eight government prosecutors opposed to Santee Cooper's plant urged Kansas health officials to deny a permit for a new plant there. They did so, citing concerns about global warming.
"Those attorneys general letters were very influential in Kansas, and my hope is that they'll be very influential in South Carolina," said Nancy Cave of the Coastal Conservation League.
"I hope they won't shrug it off."
Engineers with DHEC received more than 700 comments about the plant but have set no timetable for their decision whether to allow its construction.