Perry Fast-Tracks Coal Plants – Backroom Deal?

May 3rd, 2006

New Coal Plants Threaten DFW Air Quality and the Best Fishing in Texas

There is so much so wrong with these coal-fired power plant proposals, it’s hard to know where to start. It’s mind boggling to think that in the 21st Century, the best energy idea we can come up with in Texas is to radically expand our use of an Industrial Revolution-era fuel source.

TXU announced last week that it plans to build 11 new coal plants around the state, with the majority of them just upwind from Dallas-Ft. Worth. The cost of natural gas (a relatively clean-burning fuel) has spiked, and TXU is looking for ways to produce power on the cheap. Profits are way up at TXU but these 11 new coal plants are part of a plan to boost revenue an additional 50%.

Public health officials and regional planners are dumbfounded. It has taken years – literally decades – to get the Legislature and state environmental regulators to acknowledge dangerous urban air quality. In truth, it has taken the threat of federal sanctions for Clean Air Act violations to get the state to move at all.

The DFW metro area his violated federal air quality standards for years, and so far it hasn’t figured out a way to fix the problem. Regional planners say that to get the problem under control by the EPA’s 2010 deadline, contributing pollution will have to be cut by 42 percent. That’s not even counting the new coal plants. Their work showed that by far, the most effective way to fight the smog problem was by making pollution cuts at existing power plants. But the Governor-appointed chairwoman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Kathleen Harnett White, has another idea. She says motorists and local businesses should be targeted first.

And now we’re staring at the possibility of a raft of new coal plants? Unbelievable. First of all, Texas is not facing a power generation crisis. We have plenty of generating capacity. Second, even if we were in need of major new capacity, there are better, cleaner technologies.

Coal, admittedly, is a cheap fuel – unless you go ahead and factor in the medical costs of smog-induced respiratory illness.

And then there’s the mercury. Mercury is so toxic, emissions are measured in pounds instead of tons like other air pollutants. Burning coal kicks the stuff out like nothing else we do. The Gulf Coast and the lakes in Northeast Texas – our best fishing and recreation destinations in the state – are already so contaminated with mercury that the health department has issued warnings against eating the fish caught there.

Apparently when TXU ran the numbers, they didn’t include losses to the sport-fishing industry in their debit column. …Oh, and brain damage. Mercury causes brain damage, nervous system damage and problems with fetal development. We’re pretty sure TXU didn’t count that either.

With so much at risk, it’s a wonder that TXU would even think about proposing a whole new spate of coal plants. Getting this idea past the regulators wouldn’t even seem possible without some kind of inside job.

As it turns out, it looks like these coal plants may be the product of a world-class back room deal.

Last October TXU was seeking to raise rates to cover higher natural gas costs exacerbated by Katrina and Rita. A letter from that month to Governor Perry outlines a deal they cut where TXU said that if they got the first part of the rate increase, then pending before the PUC, they would agree to delay the other part until after April 1st.

This has raised a few eyebrows among folks who suspect delaying the full rate hike might have had something to do with the primary election season, but Perry’s folks say it ain’t so – cross their hearts and hope to die.

The TXU letter ends by warmly noting all parties’ agreement of the importance of “ongoing efforts to ensure adequate development of new generation resources,” which the more cynical among you might take as a nod of things to come. Quid pro quo? We’ve got a copy of the letter, obtained through an open records request, HERE.

Two weeks later, Perry delivered the goods – issuing an executive order fast-tracking the permitting process for new power plants. A process that typically takes about two years – one year review and issue a draft permit, and another year for the public hearing and approval process – was compressed to six months. The Dallas Morning News has a good story about all this HERE.

Environmental and public health advocates who keep an eye on these things say they’ve never seen anything like it. Six months isn’t enough to time for the public to review all the technical documents, check the air-quality modeling and see what the effects will be.

According to long-time consumer advocate Tom “Smitty” Smith, that isn’t even enough time for the permitting staff at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to do their job right. “You look at the notes in their files, and you see where these guy have written ‘told to drop everything else and move TXU first,’” Smitty said.

The fact of the matter, though, is that we already know what standard coal-combustion produces: ozone-forming NOx, lung-scorching SO2, asthma-inducing particulates, and highly-toxic mercury. We know this already.

Not to be pessimistic, but so far there hasn’t been too much political outcry – not with the governor traveling from town to town touting the jobs that these plants will supposedly create. Maybe there’s another gubernatorial candidate with the cajones (ladies included) to fight for Texans and not just TXU.