News

TLCV in the Houston Chronicle: Let’s stop this rush to build new coal plants in Texas

October 25th, 2010

By DAVID WEINBERG
HOUSTON CHRONICLE
Oct. 20, 2010

Texas gets a bad rap for its work on clean energy and pollution reduction. The state is the nation’s leader in wind energy production and has made notable reductions in toxic air pollutants including carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide over the past decade. It is unfortunate that Gov. Rick Perry is erasing these gains through a stubborn and wrong-headed insistence on building more coal and petroleum-coke power plants across the state.

The governor’s appointees to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) are bending over backward to permit new coal plants. The impetus for this rush is new federal rules for carbon pollution coming online in early 2011. Perry and his TCEQ commissioners are worried — and rightly so – that the EPA’s new source rules for carbon pollution will hamper the state’s ability to build new smog-belching coal plants.

With the clock ticking on the new carbon pollution rules, TCEQ is trying to fast track a new pet-coke plant in Corpus Christi. Just last week, commission Chairman Bryan Shaw urged the administrative law judges tasked with reviewing the contested case to “take every opportunity to find ways to expedite the process.”

The state’s environmental agency is putting speed ahead of good judgment and politics ahead of responsible deliberation and review. It’s an unprecedented move and one that’s especially troubling given the fact that the Las Brisas plant in Corpus Christi will dump an estimated 10.4 million tons of carbon dioxide, 8,096 tons of sulfur dioxide, 3,776 tons of nitrogen oxide, 1,620 tons of particulate matter and 216 tons of mercury in Texas’ environment every year.

What’s more, this Texas-sized, ill-advised coal rush is not just bad public policy; it’s utterly unnecessary. According to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the demand for power in Texas has decreased or remained steady over the past few years. A recent study by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy showed that Texas ranks 32nd among states in cost-saving energy efficiency policies. The state can also increase its power generating capacity through increased use of Texas-produced natural gas and renewable energy sources such as wind power. The average capacity factor for natural gas-fired plants in Texas for 2009 was only 34 percent.

Natural gas as a fossil fuel is much cleaner than coal and petroleum coke. Natural gas in power generation produces roughly half the carbon emission of coal and vastly less mercury, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter. Domestically produced natural gas has the added benefit of providing severance taxes for Texas – a critically important source of revenue for a state with a budget shortfall estimated as high as $21 billion. Coal brought in on trains from Rocky Mountain and Upper Midwest states provides no such benefit for Texas taxpayers.

Does Perry have a personal burning desire to erase the gains Texas has made on clean energy and pollution reduction in the past decade by building new dirty coal and petroleum coke plants? This is unlikely. The unfortunate answer is that Perry’s decisions are likely driven by political contributions from the coal industry, which has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions into Perry’s coffers over his 10-year term.

If Perry wanted to pursue a responsible energy policy for Texas, he would support legislation similar to a clean-energy bill passed in Colorado this year that mandated increased use of natural gas and retiring or converting old, dirty, coal-fired power plants.

Texas is at a crossroads. Texas can continue down a path of building new polluting coal and pet-coke plants – erasing the gains it has made over the past decade – or it can embrace and rely upon domestically produced sources of clean energy such as wind and natural gas. For Texans and their families, the answer couldn’t be more clear.

Weinberg is executive director of the Texas League of Conservation Voters and the Texas League of Conservation Voters Education Fund.