LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Climate scientists were among more than a dozen people testifying in support of legislation Friday that would force utility companies to assess the health and environmental effects of their power sources, but the bill's sponsor backed away by asking his colleagues to simply study the issue.
Malcolm Sen. Ken Harr told the Natural Resources Committee he was concerned that public power companies were not considering the impacts of generating electricity with coal. But rather than asking lawmakers to vote the bill out of committee, Harr asked the panel to commission an in-depth study on the issue.
Harr said failing to consider health and environment impacts of coal-fired power plants and other energy sources could result in additional costs to taxpayers, such as increased health care costs or clean-up projects. The state's utilities say Harr's bill is vague and overreaching.
"As a state that is lagging far behind our neighboring states in wind development, we need to make sure that we don't miss out on economic opportunities for our citizens because of outmoded ways of looking at these issues," Harr said.
Coal provides more than 70 percent of electric power generation to Nebraska residents, according to 2011 data from the U.S. Energy Information Association.
All of Nebraska's power utility companies, which are publically owned, oppose the measure.
Russ Baker of the Nebraska Power Association said the bill would fundamentally change how the NPA makes decisions about power sources. He said such environmental assessments should be left to the Environmental Protection Association, not the Nebraska Power Review Board, which regulates utilities in the state. He also said the bill's proposed requirements would be extremely expensive.
"It does not make sense to have the power and review board substitute its judgment for the expertise of the state and federal environmental regulators who impose environmental requirements for electric power facilities," Baker said.
Gary Stauffer, executive director of Nebraska Municipal Power Pool, said his electricity and natural gas company opposes the bill because the requirements are too vague. He said his company considers reliability and affordability when choosing what power sources to use.
"Clearly the health issues that have been discussed, the environmental impacts that have been discussed, are concerns to us, too," he said, but he said studying those issues would be far too expensive for his company.
Retired National Weather Service meteorologist John Pollack told the committee that climate change shouldn't be ignored and lawmakers should reduce coal reliance and shift to renewable energies, such as wind and solar power.
Pollack said he has seen climate change unfold over his 31-year career at the National Weather Service, and he said it is accelerating.
"If by the end of the century it seems likely our climate resembles what Kansas has now or even northern Oklahoma, you can ask yourself where the Corn Belt will be going," Pollack said. "And I guarantee you it's not staying in Nebraska. This is one of the many economic impacts that we would like to avoid."
University of Nebraska climate professor Bob Oglesby added that based on model projections, the state could experience a 4- to 10-degree warming over the next century.
Climatologist Mark Svoboda for the University of Nebraska National Drought Mitigation Center said the rate of warming in the United States has tripled since 1970. Svoboda said Nebraska's record flooding of 2011 followed by the record drought in 2012 are good examples of climate change.
"The extreme events and the impacts they have had on the citizens of Nebraska over the last two years are prime examples of what our climate may already being doing to us," Svoboda said.
North Omaha resident Vernon Muhammad told lawmakers that he and his family live less than 4 miles from a coal-fired power plant, and he believes it has triggered health problems including asthma and respiratory illnesses for 20 of his family members. Omaha Asthma Alliance has reported that northeast Omaha has the highest average rates of asthma in Douglas County.
Muhammad said his great grandfather died of an asthma attack and his daughter also has asthma. He said reducing exposure to the carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury could make a huge impact on the health of low-income and minority families in his community.
"Where you live shouldn't determine whether your child has clean air," he told lawmakers.
The bill is LB567.