The great slowdown

Georgia's new Energy Strategy emphasizes natural gas, oil exploration and nuclear power

When you appoint a group composed of a lot of industry insiders to study the future of energy in Georgia, it should come as no surprise that their answer to a dwindling energy supply includes exploiting gas and oil off the coast and supporting more nuclear power plants.

Due to be submitted to the governor's office this week, the State Energy Strategy for Georgia serves up an assortment of recommendations that includes expansion of electricity from nuclear generation and urging state government to get the feds to allow natural gas and oil exploration off the Golden Isles.

Critics note that the report barely mentions global warming and is replete with conservation bandages and feel-good measures that don't aggressively address looming crises in energy supplies.

"Georgia is among the worst states when it comes to extravagant use of energy," says Dave Kyler, executive director of the Center for a Sustainable Coast on St. Simons Island, a group that opposes drilling off the coast.

Between 1984 and 2004, Georgia's energy consumption grew 76 percent, and over the next 20 years the population in metro Atlanta alone is projected to balloon from 4.5 million to at least 7 million. Environmentalists say the state can no longer afford to depend on nonrenewable forms of energy, including coal-fired power plants — Georgia's chief source of energy and the biggest source of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.

[]Chaired by Lee Thomas, retired president and chief operating officer of Georgia Pacific, the 18-member council now sends its proposals to Gov. Sonny Perdue, who reaffirmed where he stands on energy when he announced his selection of a new chief of staff: Ed Holcombe, formerly director of legislative affairs at Georgia Power.

Arthur Corbin, president and CEO of the Municipal Gas Authority, and Dennis Creech of Southface, an Atlanta-based environmental non-profit, provide a vivid contrast between the competing visions.

In testimony he gave to the council, Corbin said he wanted the report to include a state exhortation to the feds to allow natural gas exploration off the coast.

The final draft includes that recommendation. "The natural gas marketplace, developed off the coast of Georgia, will benefit from a bright supply future," Corbin says. "One of the reasons we have higher prices is we don't have the developed supply that we could have today."

Creech, meanwhile, wanted the council to at least put on the record that energy efficiency must be a chief priority for Georgia, and he unhappily confessed last week to being disappointed. "The problem is selling energy as a commodity," Creech says. "The more energy [industry companies] sell, the more money they make. The trick is to make energy efficiency the commodity, but that is a very slow process."

Fifty percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from the electricity in buildings, Creech says. If the council were serious about global warming, it could have called for tougher utilities regulations and stricter building codes. Rather than aggressively pressuring the state to shift toward more sources of alternative energy, he adds, the strategy recommends expanding nonrenewable energy, most notably off the coast.

The Center for a Sustainable Coast's Kyler says drilling in those waters would diminish the quality of life for people and devastate aquatic life. He would have liked to see in the strategy more emphasis on alternative energy sources, such as solar and wind.

Jennette Gayer, of the advocacy group Environment Georgia, especially laments the absence of recommendations for stronger caps on carbon emissions. On the upside, she admits she's happy the council might recommend in its final draft the creation of a state-managed pot of money to encourage green projects.

Both Gayer and Rita Kilpatrick, Georgia policy director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, doubt the Legislature on its own will be able to summon the political will for something as conservation-minded as a public-benefits fund, particularly if the money is raised through a tax on public utilities. And much of the council itself was uncomfortable with the idea.

But Gayer and Kilpatrick say they're not giving up hope.

"This has been done before, where there is an initiative set up and then when it goes to the Legislature they don't get it funded," Kilpatrick says. "The public is going to have to take this initiative and carry it the extra mile."

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