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Why Natural Gas Leader Oklahoma Still Relies on Coal

Background

Oklahoma Gas & Electric's coal-fired Sooner Plant near Red Rock, Okla.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Oklahoma Gas & Electric's coal-fired Sooner Plant near Red Rock, Okla.

Natural gas is a big deal in Oklahoma, but the state still relies on coal.

About 40 percent of the electricity generated in the state is fueled by burning coal, data from the U.S. Energy Information Agency show. But Oklahoma’s reliance on coal presents a number of problems.

First, Oklahoma sits on a massive amount of natural gas, more than all but three other states, and it seems like common sense to use it. Especially when you consider that the vast majority of the coal Oklahoma burns for electricity has to be shipped here from Wyoming.

That’s because Oklahoma’s coal is too dirty — it’s really high in sulfur. Burning large quantities of it violates the federal federal Clean Air Act. So mining for Oklahoma coal on a large scale hasn’t been economically viable in decades.

Expanding overseas markets, especially in Asia, are beginning to increase demand, but that brings us to another problem — the federal government.

Coal in Court

President Barack Obama’s  administration cracking down on coal. Provisions of the Clean Air Act choked off the state’s coal mining industry long ago, but new regulations on coal-fired power plants — there are six large ones in Oklahoma — are forcing one of the state’s major utilities, Public Service Company of Oklahoma, to install expensive air scrubbers, and have driven the other, Oklahoma Gas & Electric, to court.

All this after the federal government made Oklahoma switch away from natural gas and back to coal during the Jimmy Carter Administration, because of fears of a natural gas shortage.

But why the government is going after coal is obvious, and another reason relying on coal causes problems for Oklahoma: It’s dirty — bad for your health and the environment.

The Sierra Club, with their Beyond Coal Campaign, and other environment groups have produced evidence of impaired lakes and rivers from dumping coal ash into waterways, and air fouled by toxic emissions. In other words, living near a coal-fired power plant is no picnic.

But moving away from coal and more toward natural gas and renewables is anything but cheap. A new natural gas plant can cost hundreds of millions of dollars. So can installing scrubbers at existing coal plants.

Initially, that costs the utility companies, but eventually it’s the customers who pay in the form of higher electricity rates.

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