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The Associated Press December 12, 2011, 6:05PM ET

Environmental groups make deal with Duke, Progress

Environmental groups said an agreement they made with Duke Energy and Progress Energy over the utilities' proposed merger will assure conservation and protecting people's health are also priorities of the new company.

The utilities promised to stick to an enforceable schedule for closing several power plants that run on coal and made other allowances in the agreement announced Monday.

The companies already had publically announced they would reduce the amount of power produced by coal-fired plants by 3,000 megawatts, but the agreement now include an enforceable schedule, said Greg Andeck with the Environmental Defense Fund.

"We see this almost as an insurance policy. Even though they said they will do this, companies can change their minds," Andeck said.

Andeck's group reached the agreement with the company along with the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Coastal Conservation League and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. All four groups had asked to intervene in discussions of the merger this week by the South Carolina Public Service Commission.

The agreement also includes a promise from the utilities to find conservation measures to save 1 percent of the retail energy sold in the previous year starting in 2015 and save a cumulative 7 percent of the energy sold from 2014 to 2018. The companies also will give $2 million to Palmetto Clean Energy Inc., a South Carolina nonprofit that promotes local renewable energy options.

Duke Energy and Progress Energy are trying to get their merger finished before the end of the year, but it still has not received final federal approval. The combined company would have 7.1 million power consumers in the Carolinas, Florida, Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio. It would become the country's largest utility company by number of customers, retail revenue and generating capacity, according to Edison Electric Institute, the country's main electric utility trade group.

The size of the potential new company makes Monday's agreement even more important, Andeck said.

"When you become the largest utility in the country, a lot of people will be looking at you to make the right decisions," he said.

The groups raised similar issues in North Carolina, but that state has already held its hearings on the merger.

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