Legislators, environmental activists and Duke Energy officials are holding their breath todayand not because the air is bad.

The N.C. Utilities Commission is scheduled to decide Feb. 28 if it will green-light Duke’s proposed Cliffside project, two 800-megawatt coal-fired power plants near Charlotte that will cost at least $3 billion. With commission approval, Duke must apply for an air permit from the N.C. Department of Natural and Environmental Resources. The Commission could also choose to oblige the request of 20 legislators, who wrote a letter last week to the seven-member group asking that it postpone its final decision for 90 days so lawmakers and the public can digest the plant’s finances (download letter, MS Word, 36 KB).

“The public doesn’t understand what’s at stake when the utilities commission authorizes a new plant,” said state Rep. Paul Luebke, who signed the letter with six other Triangle lawmakers.

Ratepayers would bear the brunt of the plant’s costs, which rose from $2 billion last September to $3 billion two months later. Critics of the plant argue financing costs aren’t figured into that amount and the Cliffside price tag is closer to $4 billion.

There have been numerous public and evidentiary hearings about Cliffside over the past two years, but essential financial information about the project hasn’t been released because it qualifies as a trade secret. “We need the ability to negotiate in good faith with contractors,” said Duke Energy spokeswoman Paige Sheehan.

Environmental lawyers, the state attorney general’s office and the utilities commission’s public staff, whose charge is to represent the state’s ratepayers, have seen the information, although they have signed confidentiality agreement.

“That’s not the same as public debate,” Luebke said.

Proprietary information is defined under statutes passed by the legislature. “The legislature might have made a mistake in determining what’s proprietary,” said Luebke. “Maybe this information needs to be available, but it may be too late.”

Duke has repeatedly stated a delay would increase the plant’s cost because without official commission approval, the utility cannot firm up bids.

Postponing the decision would give two renewable energy bills, currently in their respective House and Senate committees, a chance to gain traction.

The utilities, says state Rep. Pricey Harrison, chairwoman of the Energy and Energy Efficiency Committee, are asking for a comprehensive energy bill with financial incentives in exchange for a renewable energy program.

Duke has maintained that even with renewable energy and efficiency measures, Cliffside is still necessary. Critics disagree, contending that for the cost of Cliffside and probable coal prices increases, the state could invest in energy efficiency and still meet demand. “Asking us to invest our hard-earned money in coal plants is like buying whaling ships to get whale oil for lamps,” said Judy Kinkaid of Clean Energy Durham, during a press conference about the lawmakers’ letter.

Also at issue is a provision known as CWIP, or Construction Work in Progress. Under CWIP, utilities can hike customers’ rates to pay financing costs on projects such as Cliffsidebefore they are finished. However, pro-CWIP legislation has been introduced in South Carolina, where Duke plans to build a nuke plant. After N.C. ratepayers ate CWIP costs on unfinished nuclear plants in the ‘80s, the legislature outlawed it. Yet, recently there have been discussions at the legislature to revive CWIP, perhaps as part of the comprehensive energy bill.

This is a crucial time for utilities such as Duke Energy. They are confronting a scientific consensus and heightened public awareness of global warmingwitness Al Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary on climate change, An Inconvenient Truththat have influenced the Cliffside discussions.

“We haven’t seen a process so publicly debated since the last nuclear plant 20 years ago,” Sheehan said.