A Texas Mess Over Coal
Proposed plants have stirred a clean-air uproar
That mantra of Lone Star State toughness, "Don't mess with Texas," actually began as an antilittering campaign back in the 1980s. While the campaign saw some success, the energy-producing state has proved less capable in cutting back on other pollutants. According to the American Lung Association, both the Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth areas are in the nation's top 10 for highest ozone levels, a major component of smog.
Now, some Texans fear their air will be further, well, messed with. The state is seeking permits to build some 16 new coal-fired power plants. And the Lone Star State isn't alone. Though talk of clean energy dominates the headlines, cheap, plentiful coal is staging a quiet comeback. According to the Department of Energy, 154 coal plants are being proposed nationwide, enough to power 93 million homes. While power grids nationwide are surely strained, the crush of new coal plants--typically dirtier than natural gas--is sparking brawls at state and local levels.
Gamble. But the old not-in-my-backyard fight over power plants has a new wrinkle, global warming-potential ammo for environmentalists and motivation for utilities. Analysts say the rush to build new plants is a calculated gamble by utilities that the federal government is poised to impose historic curbs on greenhouse gases-particularly with Democrats ensconced in Congress. By building now, utilities may grandfather in a new generation of plants that won't be required to bear the full brunt of future laws. Utilities say they're simply trying to meet the burgeoning demands of a growing country. But environmentalists aren't buying, and they vow to fight the coal plant expansion in every available forum.
In something of a twist, energy-friendly Texas has become the closely watched ground zero in this battle. Gov. Rick Perry expedited the permitting of the coal plants in October 2005, when he was under pressure from energy price hikes that came about in the wake of deregulation of the state's energy market back in 2002. Some customers saw electric bills jump 80 percent, in part because of rising natural gas prices and, some say, a botched formula that determines the rates charged by the biggest providers. Coal plants, Perry argued, would drive down costs and give a much-needed boost to the state's power grid. Earlier this fall, a report by the North American Electric Reliability Council buttressed at least part of Perry's argument, saying Texas is among regions most at risk for grid failure because future demands are expected to exceed capacity. "We need to make sure Texas stays ahead of the demand for energy," says Perry spokesperson Kathy Walt.
Green groups. But a bipartisan coalition of 21 Texas cities and counties, as well as environmental groups, says conservation and renewable energy could reduce the strain on the grid. And the groups argue that the proposed fleet of pulverized-coal plants-standard technology but short of cutting-edge-isn't the answer for an already polluted state. Plus, pulverized coal releases more carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, than do other options. Dallas Mayor Laura Miller, who leads the coalition, called the proposal "just mind boggling." Miller has "panhandled" across the state recruiting supporters and raising money for a fight to block the plants as currently proposed. Miller is using the $500,000 that's been raised to hire health and air-quality experts to testify before the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which oversees permitting for the plants. At hearings beginning this week, Miller's coalition may argue that the commission didn't force energy companies to review all "best available technology," as required by federal law. The coalition believes that fledgling coal-gasification technology--producing a dramatically lower level of pollutants--should be considered.
Meanwhile, national green group Environmental Defense is suing the commission-whose members are appointed by the governor-in state court for failing to enforce its own regulations "by not requiring applicants to look at cumulative impact on air quality," says Environmental Defense lawyer Amy Hardberger. Dallas Mayor Miller says adding 16 new plants to the existing 18 will push air quality in parts of the state over federal limits of the Clean Air Act and violate state laws as well. If that happens, many areas could lose "highway money from the feds ... and block grant money for our inner-city neighborhoods," says Miller. "We're in enormous trouble." Miller's city has already lost federal funding because of pollution.
Most of the anger has been directed at Texas's largest energy provider, Dallas-based TXU, which plans to build 11 of the new coal-burning units. The company denies it was motivated by fear of impending regulations. "If demand was not there, we wouldn't be building these power plants," says spokesperson Kimberly Morgan. "Our customers in Texas enjoy their air conditioning, enjoy their big homes." TXU says coal-gasification technology is still too unreliable for a massive investment. TXU is pledging that 100 percent of the regulated pollutants emitted by new plants will be offset by technology upgrades in older facilities. The company also promises to reduce pollutants-but not greenhouse gases-across the older fleet by 20 percent below 2005 levels. All in all, a $2.5 billion investment. Critics say the plan is short on details and promise all-out war. Privately, though, some are conceding it's doubtful they'll be able to stop all, or any, of the proposed plants. Still, with showdowns looming, locals are staging candlelight vigils and protests; some pledged a hunger strike. "When Texans feel like they're being taken advantage of, they stand up and fight," says Tom "Smitty" Smith of the Texas chapter of Public Citizen. It's a Texas-size brawl, and one that's being watched elsewhere. Because it may not be long before other states are feeling, well, messed with.
This story appears in the December 4, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.