Clean-burning natural gas or abundant, less-expensive coal? The Oklahoma Corporation Commission has been asked to approve a new power plant to be built in Red Rock, a joint venture between OG&E Electric Services and American Electric Power-Public Service of Oklahoma.
As submitted, plans for the $1.8 billion, 950-megawatt generating facility propose it will burn Wyoming coal, and that’s got one Central Oklahoma company with a vested interest in natural gas buying more pages of advertising than the Mathis brothers.
Chesapeake Energy Corp. recently began an open letter campaign to influence the Corporation Commission to approve the facility, but require it be fueled by natural gas, some of which likely would originate from Oklahoma wells, not Wyoming coal.
Admitting its significant stake in the outcome, Chesapeake, the largest independent producer of natural gas in the United States, cites a laundry list of reasons why a coal-fired power plant would be bad for Oklahomans and why natural gas would be a better alternative.
OG&E, a regulated monopoly with no need whatsoever for expensive advertising, has responded lavishly in print and on television promoting the reasons behind its preference for coal in this case and the fuel’s benefits to our children and grandchildren.
Coal is abundant and inexpensive compared with alternatives, according to OG&E, and America is the Saudi Arabia of the planet when it comes to coal reserves, containing by some estimates as much as 250 years worth at present consumption rates.
But, coal is a dirty, polluting fuel, requiring expensive “scrubbing” technology to remove toxic chemicals and reduce carbon emissions.
By contrast, according to Chesapeake, natural gas is clean-burning, which reduces greenhouse gases and is good for the environment. Natural gas, however, is far more expensive than coal, OG&E counters, as hydrocarbon prices have surged the last five years.
Oklahoma is the second biggest natural gas-producing state per capita, and buying power-plant fuel from in-state natural gas well owners is good for Oklahoma, Chesapeake notes.
But, natural gas is not an infinite resource. Some worst-case estimates predict natural gas production will peak by 2030, while demand steadily grows. Coal reserves won’t last as long either, if demand surges due to declining oil and natural gas production, or, worse, continued Middle East instability.
So, which will it be for Red Rock: coal or natural gas? Both sides have merit, of course, but the coal-natural gas debate misses the real issue of some importance to future generations: Both fuels are finite resources.
The only “forever” options are nuclear power, hydroelectric, geothermal, wind and solar energy. But hydroelectric and geothermal are not suitable alternatives in Oklahoma; wind power is proven but unreliable, according to OG&E; and we are nowhere near making solar energy a viable alternative.
That leaves nuclear power, which OG&E said it considered but dismissed due to cost and an excessive construction and certification time span.
But, if not now, when? Time Magazine recently reported that 27 percent of Americans believe solar power will be the top source of electricity in 15 years. Yet, federal funding for solar technology research this year is less than $160 million, not even enough to build a decent bridge to nowhere, and far less than half the amount being spent on coal research.
Our critical need for electricity cannot be understated. OG&E estimates its service area demand will soar 50 percent by 2032 (about the same span of time needed to build and certify a nuclear power plant today).
Oklahoma, and our country, needs to jump-start a nuclear energy program, not debate the merits of hydrocarbons. New power plant construction programs can be accelerated, but only if we adopt a Manhattan Project mentality and start thinking really long-term.
Hazelton is a wealth manager living in northwest Oklahoma City.