We got the power

But do we want the environmental problems that come with it?

You've got to hand it to Roy Barnes.

While Gray Davis is presiding over rolling blackouts in California, thirsty for electricity, Barnes is sitting pretty in a state with enough power to last until 2009.

And there's more on the way; a dozen energy companies are looking to build 23 new natural gas-fired power plants in Georgia, bringing the total of all power plants in the state to 77.

But there's a steep price to pay for the power plants aplenty — even more pollution in a state with the dirtiest air in the Southeast, as well as a massive drain on our water resources, which are dangerously low already.

Barnes, to his credit, has recognized that.

He's expected to announce any day now the formation of a task force to wrestle with the proliferation of power plants in Georgia. True, task forces and study commissions are about as sexy as Barnes in bikini briefs, but the group will tackle one of the state's — and nation's — most pressing issues. What it decides could have ramifications on Georgia's environment for years to come.

Although a spokeswoman for the governor's office says the task force is still in the "idea phase," a June 13 letter from the governor himself, obtained by CL, says he expects to form the task force "within the next three weeks."

Barnes' letter asks the key question facing Georgia as it wrestles with its energy future: "Since independent power producers are not required to sell their electricity in Georgia, is it wise to continue to commit Georgia's air and water resources to them?"

The short answer is no. The toll on the environment is already evident. Atlanta's air was named the sixth most polluted in terms of ozone by the American Lung Association this year.

It's going to get worse before it gets better. The latest plant to be proposed for the metro area non-attainment zone, to be built in south Fulton County by the Williams Cos., will emit 500 tons of ozone-forming air pollution a year.

Outside metro Atlanta, tougher federal standards going into effect by 2003 mean that Columbus, Macon and Augusta could find themselves over the limit, putting their federal road funds at risk.

But that hasn't stopped the power companies. Setting up shop in Georgia always has made tactical sense. One reason is location. Just as Atlanta sprang to life as the crossroads of two railroads, Georgia is prime real estate because of huge natural gas pipelines that run near the national, high-powered electric grid.

That gives power companies the natural gas they need to power their plants, and easy access to power lines that allows them to sell their energy as far away as Canada.

Georgia also has the kind of railroads that makes shipping turbines the size of a medium-sized home a hell of a lot easier.

Finally, there's the state's Environmental Protection Division, the agency that gives power companies the OK to build more plants and which, it seems, never has seen a power plant it didn't like.

In fact, the EPD has resumed giving power plants the rubberstamp, this after a temporary suspension that began in May. Since the reversal, two pending permits already have been given tentative approval, according to David Word, EPD assistant director. Word expects two more will be approved within a month.

Has Georgia become too friendly to power companies? By creating the task force, Barnes seems concerned that it has. In the letter, Barnes wonders whether power companies should be required to sell some — or even all — of the energy they produce here to Georgia customers. And he raises the question of whether new power plants should be banned from areas already suffering from dirty air and water shortages.

Barnes' letter also asks what role energy conservation should play in reducing future needs.

Insiders familiar with the task force already are taking bets on who will be appointed to the group.

The task force will include representatives from the energy industry, industrial users, consumers and environmentalists. Likely candidates include executives from Georgia Power or its parent company, Southern Co. Another possible member is Kristy Holley, director of the Consumer's Utility Council. On the green side, John Sibley of the Georgia Conservancy, or Rutherford Seydel, chairman of the Upper Chattahoochee RiverKeeper, could be named. Political players may include Senate floor leader Charlie Tanksley, and more than likely Rep. Jimmy Skipper or Rep. Mark Burkhalter. Both pushed consumer-related natural gas bills during the 2001 General Assembly.

Of course, it's too soon to tell if the task force will result in progressive change or if it's just a paper tiger. But one thing's for sure: By advocating conservation and restricting the construction of new power plants, Barnes is positioning himself in direct opposition to Bush, who wants to be to power plants what Ramses was to pyramids — the president's energy plan calls for almost 2,000 new plants over the next 20 years.

Often discussed as a potential contender for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, Barnes may have found the issue that could propel him into the national spotlight. What better way than by pointing out that the Bush administration's energy policy is flawed, and will make Georgia's environmental problems worse?