There was plenty of excitement earlier this month when AEP – one of the nation’s largest energy companies – announced that it would phase out five coal-fired power plants and clean up several others. Here at the Sierra Club, we took the opportunity to call attention to this latest victory in the nationwide effort to move beyond coal and to embrace clean energy like wind and solar. Without question, phasing out coal plants is good for public health and the environment – especially really old and dirty coal plants like these, which lack modern pollution controls.

But there was just as much confusion around the AEP announcement as there was excitement. As the coal dust settles, it’s clear that all of this is just another example of Big Coal playing games with our health and energy security.

Last week EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson testified before a Senate committee, where she called the AEP announcement disingenuous.

“These myths are being perpetrated by some of the same lobbyists who have in the past testified before Congress about the importance of reducing mercury and particulate matter,” Jackson said. “Now on behalf of their clients, they’re saying the exact opposite.”

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Several excellent media reports have pointed out some holes in AEP’s claims that the energy giant is really doing anything praiseworthy or new. But with the benefit of a few more days to dig into the AEP news, it is clear that, once again, this is just more posturing and fear mongering from Big Coal.

For starters, many of the changes that AEP outlines were already required under a 2009 settlement with regulators, under which the company had to phase out several coal-fired power plants.

Then if you look at the plants slated for closing, you see that one of them – the Glen Lyn Plant in Virginia – began operations in 1944. Who brags about shutting down a coal plant built in 1944? That’s like bragging about moving out of your parents’ basement… when you turn 40.

The AEP web site talks about regulations that are killing jobs. But on closer examination, it seems like it’s really AEP that is cutting jobs to boost profits. In March another big energy player, TVA, announced that it would phase out 18 units at its coal-fired power plants in the Southeast. This victory for clean air could be achieved, TVA said, while retraining workers for clean energy jobs or transferring them to other facilities. We know that AEP doesn’t invest enough in clean energy, but does AEP also not share TVA’s commitment to its workers?

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Like other big polluters, AEP is reporting record profits. But while its peers like Xcel Energy are investing in clean energy, AEP is stuck in the dark ages, blaming critical health protections for their own “cost-cutting measures.” Just a year ago, AEP announced it was likely to phase out many of these coal plants as a cost saving measure, which raised little outcry. Now that the EPA has begun to close some of the most deadly coal pollution loopholes, AEP is crying wolf and trying to re-frame these retirements to stir up decision makers against these EPA protections.

And that’s where the trickery comes into play. The fine print in the AEP announcement says that the company is going to phase out 6,000 megawatts of coal power, refuel another 1,000 megawatts and then build 1,200 megawatts of new capacity. That leaves 3,800 megawatts of energy that seem to just disappear. There are only two possible explanations for this:

1.       All that extra coal-fired electricity was never really needed, and so phasing out these coal plants has nothing to do with regulations.

2.       AEP plans to replace that coal-fired electricity with some other energy projects, which would create construction and operations jobs. Why wouldn’t AEP want to brag about creating jobs, instead of complaining about safeguards that protect Americans from coal plant pollution?

Americans are crying out for stronger protections from coal pollution. It’s time for energy companies like AEP to stop playing games and start investing in clean energy. Now that would be something to brag about.

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