Industry titan will ‘go to mat’ to foil Oak Creek coal plant

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:23 pm

Industry titan will ‘go to mat’ to foil Oak Creek coal plant
Why Sam Johnson is battling Wisconsin Energy

When construction of any major power generation plant is being proposed, a utility company expects that the project will be opposed by environmentalists, health advocates and local residents who simply don’t want such a behemoth in their back yards.

However, Wisconsin Energy Corp.’s Power the Future plan is being attacked by an 800-pound corporate guerilla.

That force is Sam Johnson, chairman emeritus of S.C. Johnson & Son Inc., Racine.

Not only is Johnson investing his personal devotion, time and energy to block Wisconsin Energy’s plan to expand its coal-burning electricity plant in Oak Creek, but he’s donated $150,000 to the Wisconsin Environmental Decade to rally opposition to the plan.

Wisconsin Energy and its We Energies subsidiary contend they need coal generation to add balance to their electricity portfolio. By building two pulverized coal plants and one gasified coal plant in Oak Creek, Wisconsin Energy says it can provide cheaper electricity to meet the region’s growing power needs.

Johnson acknowledges that coal-burning may be less expensive than natural gas generation of electricity, in terms of the simple costs to the utility. However, the flaws of coal-burning far outweigh the 5% to 10% cheaper electric rates that might be achieved in the region, Johnson says.

In a recent interview, Johnson was asked by Small Business Times why a large manufacturing company such as S.C. Johnson would oppose a cheaper source of electricity. Without hesitating, Johnson launched into an oratory against Wisconsin Energy’s plan that would make a lobbyist blush.

Johnson: "Our objection to it is basically on quality-of-life issues with our people. We want to make Racine as attractive as possible, not only for our new employees, but for those of us who have lived there all their lives, and my family and grandchildren live there in the shadow of the smokestacks of Oak Creek …. You can see them from my house. It’s only five miles away.

"This one is so close to home. Our company has been a leader in environmental practice as a company, and we want to continue that. It would be absolutely impossible for any of us in our company to agree to this plan, because of its adverse impact on our people and our company and our ability to grow and our ability to hire the best people from all over the world and have them live in this area.

"We are more determined than ever as we get more deeply into this that this is a very bad choice on the part of Wisconsin Energy, and we’re going to go down to the mat on it.

"We really are dead serious about this issue. We do need more energy as a company. We are growing. We don’t doubt that. We just think it’s a very bad choice to go backwards to coal as a raw material.

"The only rational, reasonable, short-term choice is gas for Wisconsin Energy. I just genuinely believe that coal is a bad choice for Wisconsin Energy, and it baffles me.

"This is right in our back yard, and I realize everybody says, ‘Not in my back yard.’ But this backyard doesn’t seem to me to be the ideal place. We don’t need the 10th-largest coal plant in the United States. Many of those coal plants are located out in the boonies all over the place.

"This is one of the most important industrial areas of potential growth and economic development in the country. And to put a coal plant right in the middle of that doesn’t make any sense to me at all. So, we’re going to work on this. I feel very strongly that we’ve got to see this one down and force them to make another choice."

SBT: Tell us how you really feel, Sam. With Sam’s money behind them, the organizers of Responsible Energy for Southeastern Wisconsin’s Tomorrow (RESET) are lining up their arguments against "turning Oak Creek into Coal Creek."

Skeptics might believe Johnson entered this fight because southeastern Wisconsin is in an air quality non-attainment zone, as designated by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That means that any pollution created by a utility would minimize the amount of allowable EPA emissions credits for a manufacturer such as S.C. Johnson in the area.

Is that your primary motivation, Sam?

Johnson: "Our necessary credits for emissions is really a small part of our present expansion, which really is a headquarters expansion, more than it is a manufacturing emission.

"We are reducing our own emissions within the company, so we don’t have to go out. We probably keep better score of our emissions than any company in the Midwest. It’s not limiting our growth, and it’s not the reason we’re going after Wisconsin Energy at all.

"The health of our people, and our families and my family is the most important thing. And if we have to grow, we’ll figure out other ways to grow. Even if has to be outside of Racine, we have nothing against that."

SBT: So, Sam, have you spoken to Richard Abdoo, chairman and chief executive officer of Wisconsin Energy, about how you feel about his plan?

Johnson: "Yeah, we talked to him early on, when he discovered we weren’t as friendly on this subject as he thought we might be. We had a good discussion with Dick, and I’ve known him for a long time.

"We asked some questions of him, like, ‘Have you costed out the alternatives?’ And all of that …. We never got really a comprehensive answer to any of those questions. They just went charging out with their plan, and they were going to sell this plan to the community, and I felt a little bit brushed aside on this whole thing.

"I didn’t expect that. I thought that he would be more objective about this. I don’t know what his agenda is, except a higher investment in coal for an equivalent amount of energy — maybe that works better for the Public Service Commission because they get a certain rate of return on their investment.

"I knew Charlie McNeer, his predecessor, for years. He was on the board of the Johnson Foundation and a wonderful man. But Charlie was always kind of favorable to coal, too.

"I don’t know really where they’re coming from, because I think coal is a loser in this thing. It’s a loser for the people. I haven’t had any businessmen call me up or write me letters and say, ‘You’re on the wrong track, Sam, because we’re going to be costed out of existence because of the increased cost of electricity.’ No one has said that to me. So, there’s not exactly a groundswell of people that share (Wisconsin Energy’s) position on this thing."

Next on the RESET members’ agenda will be leaning on Wisconsin’s new Gov. Jim Doyle and state legislators. And they’ll have an 800-pound guerilla peeling the bananas.

– By Steve Jagler, of SBT

Jan. 24, 2003 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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