Ultra Clean Coal? Not quite …

April 27th, 2007

HB 3732 by Hardcastle creates a taxpayer-funded incentive program to encourage power companies to build “state-of-the-art ultra-clean” coal plants in Texas. It was recently passed by the House, but not without an attempt to fix a glaring problem within the bill.

First, there is much that is good and true in the bill. HB 3732 creates target levels for several stack emissions, including SO2 and mercury, that by current technological standards are, indeed, “ultra-clean.” Companies that meet these standards are eligible for taxpayer-funded rebates, and an accelerated permit approval process. (In deference to all that is good in the bill, we’ll refrain from calling this “fast-tracking.”)

The problem? The target levels in the bill for NOx are the same (0.5 pounds fer mmBtu) as the 11 plants proposed by TXU. Yes, these are the same plants that caused so much heartburn and concern for cities across Texas that are already in non-compliance with EPA air standards or soon will be. NOx is one of the primary contributors to ozone and is of particular concern in Texas.

Representative Allen Vaught (Dallas), a 2006 TLCV-endorsed candidate, offered an amendment to HB 3732 that would lower the NOx (nitrogen oxide) component of the ultra-clean coal emissions profile from .05 pounds per mmBtu (million Btu’s) to .02 pounds. Vaught’s amendment would have reduced ozone-forming NOx emissions by 60% and made sure that any definition of an “ultra-clean” energy project truly reflects the state of the art. As Rep. Vaught said on the floor, “Basically, this bill says you get a government handout when you do the status quo. It says that you are on the honor roll if you get a “C”.”

First, here’s a little history on how the bill ended up with the .05 standard in the first place. The federal government adopted a .05 NOx standard in 2005 for purposes of administering a competitive program that awards financial incentives to a limited number of clean coal projects. Since that time, it has become clear that state-of-the-art coal plants can do better than that.

In fact, there are currently five proposed IGCC (Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle) plants in the United States, including the Tondu plant in Corpus Christi, Texas, that are designed to meet a .02 standard in an economical way. Industry claims that no plant currently built can meet a NOx level of .02, and therefore, .05 is the better target. But the industry’s “it hasn’t been built yet” argument ignores the fact that the proposed legislation is intended, with taxpayer money, to encourage next-generation technology. The question should not be “has it been built?” but “can it be built?”

Rep. Vaught’s amendment lost on the floor by an 80-60 vote. You can view this record vote HERE. Members from non-attainment areas who voted against this amendment will have a difficult time explaining to their constituents why they voted to spend taxpayers’ money on an incentive program with NOx levels no better than the proposed TXU plants. The Senate companion to HB 3732 is SB 1785. It is still waiting to be heard in committee, and there is still hope that the NOx levels can be adjusted there.