Power Plant Pollution Battle Still On

TXU's Oak Grove lignite-burning facility gets state approval.

Once the axis of evil in Texas' war over 19 proposed pulverized coal power plants, Dallas-based utility TXU has been feverishly advertising its new, cleaner image as it undergoes a historic, $32 billion private equity firm buyout. As such, TXU abandoned plans to build eight of its 11 proposed coal plants as part of a deal with two environmental groups – a move widely viewed as a victory for breathers. What many people forget, however, is that among TXU's three still-pending plants, the juggernaut Oak Grove facility – actually two extra-dirty lignite-burning plants counted as one, located about 115 miles northeast of Austin – was up for final state permitting just this week.

Oak Grove's air permit, which the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality approved at press time, was recommended for denial by two State Office of Administrative Hearings judges last August, based on doubts about its pollution controls. Soon after, however, TCEQ Executive Director Glenn Shankle filed a lengthy list of exceptions to the ruling, even arguing for higher pollution limits, leading many to believe the agency had made up its mind. But opposition to Oak Grove among statewide and community conservation and enviro groups remains strong out of fears that its smog and ozone emissions will pollute downwind cities, including Austin, into federal violation status, and that Oak Grove's massive emissions of the neurotoxin mercury and climate-changing CO2 will devastate taxpayer-funded efforts to minimize the substances.

Opponents contend that TXU actively sought to quash testimony about global warming impacts and cleaner alternatives like coal gasification (aka clean coal) from Oak Grove's SOAH case and that – since the utility now claims to care about such things – cleaner alternatives should be addressed in the plant's permitting.

On Monday, Oak Grove opponents conferred by phone, laying out updated arguments in preparation for their day at the TCEQ – whose appointed, three-member decision-making dais was selected entirely by Gov. Rick Perry, a veteran TXU campaign-cash beneficiary. A 2005 executive order by the governor to fast-track coal plant permits was struck down by District Court Judge Stephen Yelenosky in February. Oak Grove's speedy movement through that now-defunct process is among opponents' arguments against its permitting. Power plant engineer Rich Furman raised another: that no pollution controls to effectively limit mercury and smog-forming nitrogen oxide pollution from lignite-burning plants have been commercially tested, while coal gasification has proven to drastically cut regulated pollutants. A North Dakota lignite plant has been doing it since 1984, Furman noted. TXU has long claimed that gasification of lignite is not yet technologically feasible.

At issue Wednesday was whether the TCEQ will recognize gasification as the best available pollution-control technology, a requirement permittees must meet. The 16.6 million tons of CO2 Oak Grove will annually emit is also of paramount concern. Texas A&M climate expert Andrew Dessler said simulations show that Texas temperatures are on pace to rise by 5 to 10 degrees by 2100 and that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change agreed that changes of 3 degrees "will result in extremely dangerous disruption of the climate system." The TCEQ has refused to consider CO2 in permitting since it has not yet been regulated by the feds and because Oak Grove's permit predated the April Supreme Court decision to allow the EPA to so regulate it.

TXU spokesman Tom Kleckner didn't address concerns over CO2 but said TXU has committed to "voluntarily offsetting 100 percent of all sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and mercury emissions from the Oak Grove and Sandow plants by making reductions at existing plants." (The Sandow plant is already permitted and currently under construction.)

That will be easy, since TXU has two power plants in the national Top 50 for worst nitrogen-oxide and sulfur-dioxide pollution and three in the Top 20 worst for mercury pollution, according to an annual Environmental Integrity Project report. Kleckner added that Oak Grove will also meet new federal mercury cap-and-trade rules; greens point out, however, that the plant will account for 39% of the state's mercury allowance, while generating 2% of its power.

The TCEQ had the option Wednesday to reverse the two administrative judges' recommendation and grant Oak Grove a permit, remand it back to that court, or deny TXU's application outright (requiring TXU to file an entirely new application). Four other pulverized coal plants (one belonging to TXU) have already received permits, and four more await approval. With no coal-limiting legislation coming out of the 80th Legislature, the coal wars will no doubt rage on.

TXU Oak Grove Emissions Stats

Oak Grove compared to one of TXU's canceled pulverized coal plants

Sulfur Dioxide (smog, ozone): 400%

Nitrogen Oxides (smog, ozone): 300%

Particulate Matter (asthma, lung cancer): 200%

Carbon Dioxide (global warming): 200%

Mercury (neurotoxin, fetal damage): 900%

Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at austinchronicle.com/opinion.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Oak Grove
Naked City
Naked City

Aug. 10, 2007

More coal-burning power plants
Naked City
Naked City
Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond

Nov. 3, 2006

More by Daniel Mottola
Bicycle Master Plan Gets a Tune-Up
Bicycle Master Plan Gets a Tune-Up
If it's May, it must be Bike Month

May 22, 2009

Critical Mass Arrests
Critical Mass Arrests
Pride or policy?

April 10, 2009


coal-burning power plants, TXU, Oak Grove, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Glenn Shankle, coal gasification, Rich Furman, Andrew Dessler, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Tom Kleckner, Environmental Integrity Project

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Behind the scenes at The Austin Chronicle

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle