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Progress in the Belly of the Beast?

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North Carolina is a state where public utilities cast a long, long political shadow. But it's also a state that has shown remarkable leadership and spunk on occasion in trying to clean up the polluted legacy of careless utilities with access to too much cheap coal and too many complaisant politicians. It was one of the first Southern states, for example, to reject President Bush's efforts to guarantee the rights of power plants to keep on emitting mercury.

North Carolina also has one of the more complicated utility players: Duke Power. Duke CEO Jim Rogers sits on the Board of US CAP, the environmental-business collaboration that's trying to find common ground on cap-and-trade legislation in Congress, and he's regularly been featured in the media as a utility leader who understands global warming and its implications. (For the record, I think he does. But as one environmental colleague said to me a few days ago at lunch, "the only problem is he wants to be overly compensated for making the transition to cleaner energy.") And Rogers does not view this compensation as manna from heaven, for which he prays. He works hard for it. And spends his company's money. Duke doesn't just belong to US CAP, where it hangs out with environmental groups like NRDC, ED, and NWF. Duke is also a member of ABEC, (Americans for Balanced Energy Choices), a pro-coal media campaign that may be sending clean-scrubbed people with pro-coal sandwich boards to a political primary near you. (Check out this version from Nevada.)

So intense has been ABEC's media campaign that Majority Leader Harry Reid bluntly said this week, "Coal is ruining the world....The coal industry around the country is spending tens of millions of dollars to give false and misleading information to people around the country saying 'all we want to do is have clean coal. Why won't they let us do the clean coal?' My answer to that is it doesn't exist. There is no clean coal technology. There's cleaner coal, but there's no clean coal technology."

North Carolina, it's clear as I land here, isn't yet where Harry Reid is. A year ago, the state turned down one of Duke's proposed new coal plants at Cliffside, but left one in the permit process. Wednesday, Governor Mike Easley announced approval for Duke's remaining unit, coupled with an agreement that the utility will shut down 13 existing, dirtier coal-fired plants to balance out the new carbon dioxide emissions from the new Cliffside unit. For North Carolina, this is major progress. The Sierra Club's lawsuit against both the new and the existing coal plants, based on their negative impact on air quality in the Great Smokies National Park, remains alive, so we don't know yet if even this one new unit will be built.

Meanwhile, one of North Carolina's leadership initiatives, a lawsuit against TVA to clean up its existing coal plants as a "public nuisance", took a major step forward when the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals -- probably the most friendly forum in the federal court system for utilities -- ruled that TVA did not enjoy immunity against such claims and that North Carolina would get its day in Court:

Lobbying campaigns by the Sierra Club and other advocacy groups have dampened prospects for coal-fired power projects in a number of states. Duke itself has weathered tough scrutiny and biting criticism over its Cliffside expansion, in part because its chief executive, Jim Rogers, has publicly stated that utilities need to look to non-coal energy alternatives to meet future challenges associated with global climate change.