Texas Coal Rush Update

Planned coal power plants loom large, get political

Electricity is among our most basic needs, so it's no coincidence that the debate over how that need ought to be met in our fast-growing state is reaching a fever pitch just weeks before the November elections. A handful of utilities, led by Dallas-based TXU, have come up with a solution to what they say is a fast-approaching energy shortage: 18 new coal-burning power plants. Critics note these are not the oft-touted clean coal technology devices they're depicted to be; they fear the smog and ozone pollution the plants will add will negate ongoing multi-million-dollar air quality clean-up efforts in the state's big cities (including Austin), and many believe the rush to build the plants is an effort by utilities to get the comparatively cheaper pulverized coal plants up and running ahead of anticipated legislation to limit CO2 emissions – which will double statewide with the new plants. Texas is already the nation's foremost emitter of toxic mercury and globe-warming CO2, coal's two most notorious byproducts. The state environmental agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, has already permitted two of the plants and seems poised to rubber-stamp the remainder. Greens argue for the aggressive development of Texas' renewable energy potential, for adequately funded programs supporting energy efficiency, and for Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle or the real-deal clean coal plants – capable of cutting pollution by 90% and possibly even capturing CO2.

Green leaning nonprofits including Public Citizen's Texas office, SEED Coalition, and the local branch of Environmental Defense are leading the down-with-dirty-coal movement, launching Web sites, organizing demonstrations, and filing lawsuits alongside downwind residents. Railing against TXU's permit application for its Waco-area Oak Grove coal plant (the object of ongoing legal battles), Public Citizen's Tom "Smitty" Smith characterizes the environmental community's disdain for the plants, saying, "TXU's application fails to analyze the impact of plant emissions on downwind cities, does not consider the cumulative impact of other proposed coal-fired plants, does not provide information regarding health costs, and does not analyze other technologies which could reduce pollutants by 60% to 90%." SEED Coalition Executive Director Karen Hadden, highlighting Gov. Rick Perry's cozy campaign finance relationship with TXU and other utilities, and his executive order fast tracking the coal plant permits, noted that all of Perry's challengers in some way oppose the plants. Hadden and Smith made sure to point out a recent Dallas Morning News report that implicated TXU in Enron-style illegal market manipulation involving shutting off power-generating capacity to diminish supply and boost prices, adding that TXU was sued for a similar incident in 2002.

The coal bashing doesn't stop with lefty groups, however: 18 bipartisan mayors, including those in Houston, Dallas, and even Arlington publicly reject the plants. The Capital Area Council of Governments, representing Travis and its nine neighboring counties, has been emphatically opposing the plants as well. CAPCOG Air Quality Analyst Thomas Pavlovic said, "the new plants may have an impact significant enough to jeopardize all the benefits of the Early Action Compact," an initiative launched in 2005 that includes the vehicle inspection and maintenance programs designed to help head off costly federal Clean Air Act violations. Speaking at a CAPCOG event, Austin Mayor Will Wynn said the plants have been criticized in hopes of protecting air quality progress achieved through the Early Action Compact and in concerted pursuit of better technology, not simply to keep the plants from being built.

With 11 of the 18 planned plants, TXU has become the corporate face of the coal rush. Kimberly Morgan, TXU's spokeswoman, said, "We are planning to move forward with permits as proposed." Touting an array of green-sounding achievements, from tree-planting to carpooling, Morgan focused on the utility's pledge to offset the emissions of its new plants by 100% and reduce pollution by 20% at existing plants, all while bringing online 9,000 megawatts in new power. She pointed to predictions that energy reserve margins will be inadequate by 2009, saying "I'm a little surprised at the opposition we're receiving. … TXU is the only one out there with a viable plan to meet the state's power needs."

Responding to the accusations of manufacturing scarcity through market manipulation, she said, "TXU does not condone that type of behavior." About climate change, Morgan said there's "still debate going on in the scientific community," and "it would be difficult to base a multi-billion-dollar investment on rules that may or may not be in existence." (Indeed, The Wall Street Journal reported that TXU hopes to boost annual profits by a billion dollars with its $11 billion new investment, which alone would add an additional 78 million tons of CO2 to the air. "[S]tudying this further, prolonging it, and filing lawsuits won't solve [the] problem, lawsuits won't clean the air," said Morgan, of the overall opposition to the plants.

For more on TXU's energy initiatives, see www.reliabletexaspower.com, and for more on opposition to the plants, see www.stoptxu.org and www.stopthecoalplant.org.

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TXU, coal-burning power plants, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Rick Perry, Public Citizen, SEED Coalition, Environmental Defense, Capital Area Council of Governments

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