Entergy Coal-Plant Closure Plans on Hold as Wyoming Money Fuels Lawsuit

Entergy Coal-Plant Closure Plans on Hold as Wyoming Money Fuels Lawsuit
Entergy's White Bluff [Jefferson County] coal plant. (File photo) (Entergy Arkansas)

In the wake of a National Public Radio report on Wyoming spending political “dark money” to derail plans to shut down two Arkansas coal-fired power plants, Entergy Arkansas says it still plans to close the plants in Newark and Redfield, but that those plans are held up by a federal court case.

Emails obtained by NPR show that a group behind a lawsuit to stop the shutdowns, the Arkansas Affordable Energy Coalition, was created by a nonprofit in Wyoming dedicated to keeping the state’s coal flowing to the two plants. The largest contributor to that Wyoming group, the Energy Policy Network, is the state of Wyoming, an arrangement that ethics and transparency advocates call highly unusual. Dark money refers to political funding from largely unidentified donors, and Wyoming’s financial stake in influencing energy decisions in Arkansas was not publicly known before NPR’s expose.  

The groups, in tandem with Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, challenged the shutdown plans, which Entergy announced in 2018 “after years of feuding and lawsuits,” according to NPR. Their basic argument was that coal generation is cheaper and more reliable than other fuel sources.

Randy Eminger of Bella Vista, speaking for the Energy Policy Network and the Arkansas coalition, disputed the "dark money" terminology and said plenty of big power-using companies in Arkansas support keeping the coal plants open. "Industries like steel manufacturing in northeast Arkansas want to keep access to this reliable coal-generated power," he told Arkansas Business on Thursday morning.

Entergy Arkansas Communications Manager Kacee Kirschvink took pains to distinguish between the Energy Policy Network and her company and its parent corporation, Entergy Corp. of New Orleans. But she said details that NPR reported about Entergy Arkansas were accurate.

“We have agreed to cease using coal at the White Bluff [Jefferson County] and Independence plants within the next decade,” Kirschvink said in an email to Arkansas Business. “These generating units and our employees who work there have been an important part of Entergy Arkansas for approximately four decades.”

Entergy shares ownership of the Redfield and Newark plants with Arkansas Electric Cooperatives, which has a 35% share. The two Independence units, with a capacity of 1,700 megawatts, came online in 1983 and ‘84. The White Bluff plant in Redfield, with similar generation capacity, was built in 1980. Both are within 10-15 years of the projected end of their life span.

Entergy agreed to shut down its coal-fired generation in a legal dispute over air pollution, and details on its settlement with the Sierra Club and other organizations can be found here. But Kirschvink said the fate of Entergy’s plan now hinges on a judge’s ruling.

“The current status of the case (Case No. 4:18-cv00854) before the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Arkansas, Western Division, is that briefings are complete and the parties are waiting on U.S. District Judge Kristine G. Baker to make her decision,” Kirschvink said.

Wyoming officials told NPR that the Energy Policy Network is a critical piece of the state’s efforts to keep Arkansas and other states as coal consumers as coal generation wanes nationwide.  Rutledge told NPR she had not been aware that Wyoming money was involved in backing the lawsuit.

Dozens of U.S. coal-fired plants have retired in the last decade, and coal-generated electricity is at a 42-year low in the country, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Entergy, the state’s largest electric utility with more than 700,000 customers, has seen coal fall from generating 20% of its power to less than 4% over the past few decades, partly a result of the utility’s continued reliance on its durable and emissions-free nuclear workhorse, Arkansas Nuclear One. That plant, in Russellville, carries some 70% of Entergy’s load. But the investor-owned utility has also taken increasing advantage of low-cost natural gas to generate a greater supply of its electricity, approaching 25%.

Kirschvink called Entergy a national leader in sustainability and environmental stewardship. “In fact, last week it was announced that Entergy Arkansas is one of three finalists for the Arkansas Department of Energy and Environment’s ENVY Award for environmental stewardship, and in 2019 Entergy Arkansas was named the recipient of the 2019 Energy Excellence (E2) Award,” she said.

Kirschvink noted that Entergy Corp. committed to aggressive climate action in September, announcing a plan to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

“Entergy remains focused on helping our stakeholders achieve their most ambitious aspirations in a reliable, affordable and sustainable way through new technologies and innovative solutions,” she said.

Glen Hooks, director of the Arkansas Sierra Club, said he was “encouraged to see Entergy, like many utilities, pledging to move toward a carbon-free future.” Lamenting the lawsuit, he specifically mentioned Entergy’s plans to shut the two coal-fired plants. He added that the Entergy “has built several utility-scale clean solar energy facilities around the state, with plans for more.”