Climate Change: Still Not a Hoax

Reducing carbon emissions with Austin Energy, without the Fayette Power Project

The Fayette Power Project (Photo by Larry D. Moore / CC BY-SA 3.0)

This Saturday, people will gather in cities throughout the world to march and demand the United States and other governments take a stronger stance against the global threat of climate change. The day coincides with U.S. President Donald Trump's 100th day in office; during that time, Trump has called climate change "a hoax" and proposed a budget that would cut roughly one-third of the Environmental Protection Agency's funding and lay off 3,750 employees. Trump has also signed executive orders aiming to dismantle Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan, which requires that states reduce by one-third the carbon emissions of their power plants by 2030. Shortly after Obama's EPA rolled that plan out, 27 states, including Texas, sued the agency for overextending its jurisdiction. The case is currently being considered by an appeals court in Washington, D.C. A ruling could come down at any time.

According to Kaiba White, a researcher and community organizer with Public Citi­zen (organizers of Saturday's march, along with the Austin People's Climate Mobil­iz­a­tion and 350 Austin), the most straightforward way to reduce carbon emissions is to cut coal out from energy production. Coal is certainly king when it comes to generating carbon dioxide, producing roughly twice as much as natural gas when processed. The Fayette Power Project (FPP), co-owned by Austin Energy and the Lower Colorado Riv­­er Authority, is Austin's most direct connection to dirty fossil fuels. The plant, in operation since 1979, is "by far" our city's biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions, said White, "and it accounts for about 80 percent of Austin Energy's greenhouse gas emissions. That's why the local environmental community has put so much focus on it for years."

Among City Council members, Leslie Pool has been the most vocal advocate for that community. Last year, the District 7 CM led the charge to incorporate an accelerated timeline for phasing out the city's investment in Fayette as part of the city's Com­mun­ity Climate Plan (CCP). Austin is one of the few large American cities that owns its own electric utility, Austin Energy; Council serves as its board of directors. Pool said the relationship puts the city in a unique position to push an aggressive renewable energy agenda. "The federal government is inoculated from the concerns of the everyday man or woman on the street. Municipalities are not," she said. "[My constituents] see the effects of climate change every day, and they want to protect their families, their neighborhoods – and frankly, the world."

The local activists organizing Saturday's march told the Chronicle they hope to capitalize on Council's responsiveness to grassroots interests to put pressure on the city to stay on track with its ambitious goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Not reaching that target, the CCP asserts, would jeopardize the health and safety of Austin's future generations. Without citizens organizing, said Shane Johnson, who's helping coordinate Austin's Climate Justice Week (ongoing), "Austin Ener­gy gets bogged down in the typical bureaucracy, and they won't get everything done on a timeline that reflects the urgency of the climate threat in general and the impact that these fossil fuel plants continue to have on the people around them."

In June, AE staff will present to Council a road map for shutting down its halves of the two units it co-owns at Fayette, with action beginning no later than 2022. But even if the city sticks to that schedule, the plant will continue operations under the management of the Lower Colo­rado River Authority, which does not share Council's political incentive to cater to Austin residents. Its board is appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott to service Texans in more than 70 counties. That responsibility necessitates a degree of flexibility with regard to energy sources. It also cultivates an air of financial pragmatism among LCRA's leadership. LCRA Vice President for Public Affairs Bill Lauderback told the Chronicle, "FPP is currently operating economically, with operating revenues exceeding operating costs. LCRA has every reason to believe that FPP will continue to operate in a positive economic posture in the future."

In any case, shutting down Fayette might give coal-conscious Austinites some peace of mind, but it wouldn't do much to change the amount of coal-fueled energy residents use. "There's this lingering, old-fashioned idea that [AE] plants service [AE] customers, but it hasn't been that way for 20 years," said AE spokesperson Robert Cullick. Unlike other states, Texas has its own power grid; it's managed by the Electrical Reli­a­bil­ity Council of Texas. The majority of the energy generated by it is consumed by Texas cities; only a quarter of it comes from coal plants. "Even if [Fayette] goes away," said city Climate Program Manager Zach Baumer, "we're still going to be buying power from the ERCOT grid. People still need electricity, day and night, cloudy or windy. That's why we need to focus on improving energy efficiency and green building, as well as local generation."

March organizers don't disagree with taking a holistic approach to renewable energy, but Johnson said many activists have recently shifted away from prioritizing efficiency and preservation, toward being more justice-oriented. The direct actions taken in Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline helped restore the environmental ideal of supporting those most affected. "If we let the market dictate our [environmental goals], we'll continue to see this rampant consumerism that perpetuates this need for individuality at the expense of other people," said Johnson. Con­sum­erism "distracts people from fighting against various injustices in society, because they're too focused on getting what they want. What we should be doing is connecting with our neighbors and fellow community members."

That's clearly not a model agreed upon by the current White House, which issued a swift approval of the Dakota pipeline in February. White said she doesn't expect the Trump administration to be swayed by the demands of climate march participants, but that senators and representatives could be. "I have limited expectations as to how it will change actual administrative actions, but I do think it could have an impact on federal legislation," she said.

The problem with implementing legislation, even at the local level, is that it takes years. According to most climate scientists, the world doesn't have that much time to wait.

The People’s Climate March & Rally takes place Saturday, April 29, at the Capitol, rain or shine, from 1 to 3:30pm.

This story has been updated to specify that Austin Energy owns halves of two units at Fayette Power Project, not two units on their own.

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climate change, Kaiba White, Donald Trump, Fayette Power Project, Leslie Pool, Robert Cullick, Shane Johnson, Bill Lauderback, Zach Baumer

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