Aug. 23, 2006 – In a state that already houses some of the nationâ€™s dirtiest utilities, environmentalists say a plan to build eleven new coal-fired power plants will keep Texas residents "gasping for clean air."
Despite widespread and growing opposition, the project, proposed by TXU, the stateâ€™s largest utility company, has the outspoken support of Governor Rick Perry.
TXU says the plants are needed to keep pace with increased energy demands due to projected population growth in the state. The company also claims the plants would provide jobs, foster economic growth and lower electricity prices.
But environmentalists say Texas cannot afford a plan that threatens to exacerbate the health hazards and hazy landscapes that already blanket the stateâ€™s metropolitan areas. They also fear the new plants would jeopardize gains made across the country in reducing carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.
Environmental Defense, a nonprofit legal advocacy group, estimates that the new plants would emit 78 million tons of carbon-dioxide (CO2) pollution per year. This could negate reductions expected in dozens of states and cities that have passed legislation to stem greenhouse-gas emissions from automobiles and other polluting industries.
According to the federal governmentâ€™s own data, power plants currently contribute 40 percent of total US carbon-dioxide emissions.
Environmental Defense estimates that the new plants would emit 78 million tons of carbon-dioxide pollution per year.
"At a time when the earth is warmingâ€¦itâ€™s incomprehensible that we would risk the climate by adding emissions to our already over-heated skies," said Tom Smith, with Texas Public Citizen, a public-interest campaign organization.
TXU spokesperson Chris Schein admitted to The NewStandard that the carbon-dioxide emissions in Texas would "probably" double if the state built the eleven plants as proposed, at a total price tag of $10 billion.
Environmentalists are also concerned about an increase in ozone, another pollutant spewed by coal-fired plants. The Dallas-Fort Worth area, one of the ten largest metropolitan areas in the country, has struggled for more than a decade to find a way to reduce its ozone emissions in order to comply with standards set by the federal Clean Air Act.
Houston, Austin and Tyler-Longview-Marshall are also dangerously teetering on the threshold for federal "non-attainment" of the eight-hour ozone standard, a measure created by the EPA to assess hazards to public health, like respiratory illnesses, asthma and heart attacks, caused by pollution.
Schein of TXU said the companyâ€™s original plan was to build only two new plants, but this past spring the company added nine more to its proposal. He said the state risks rolling blackouts if electricity generation is not increased by 2009.
Critics speculate that the rush to build new plants has less to do with meeting the stateâ€™s energy needs than with trying to avoid possible penalties in the future if Congress ever passes caps on carbon-dioxide emissions.
Gov. Perry has appointed several TXU executives to state agencies.
Congress has not passed legislation to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions, though it did pass a bill in 1990 to cap emissions of sulfur-dioxide, yet another pollutant produced by power plants. In 2003, the EPA declared that it has no legal authority to regulate carbon-dioxide as a pollutant. Ten states and several environmental groups have challenged the Agency in court to demand stricter carbon-dioxide controls.
Environmentalists concede that TXUâ€™s new coal plants would pollute less than the older plants, which were built between 1950 and 1970.
The company has also claimed that compared to its current plants, when the new plants are brought online, they would reduce TXUâ€™s overall emissions of sulfur-dioxide, nitrogen-oxide and mercury by 20 percent, partly by decreasing pollution at its older facilities. But critics blast the companyâ€™s sluggishness in releasing details on how exactly it plans to reduce annual emissions of those three pollutants.
Schein told TNS the company has a plan, but has not yet released it to the public. TXU sent a letter to state regulators in July of this year requesting to codify the emission reductions into state law. "So we will be held responsible for it," Schein said.
Environmental activists say that without access to TXUâ€™s actual plan, they have no way to vet the proposal and consult with scientists and other experts. Groups like the Austin-based Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) Coalition say that such details are critical in light of the stateâ€™s alarming mercury pollution rate, which includes emissions from existing TXU plants. Texas has the highest rate of mercury pollution from coal plants in the nation, according to a report from US Public Interest Research Group, a public advocacy organization, emitting about 9,000 pounds of the toxin in 2003.
Five of the countryâ€™s ten biggest mercury emitters are in Texas, and TXU's Martin Lake plant in East Texas tops the list, according to a new analysis from the Environmental Integrity Project, a research and advocacy group. Martin Lake is also the worst ozone polluter in the country.
Critics of TXUâ€™s plan have condemned Gov. Perryâ€™s enthusiastic support of the new power plants. Perry, who has appointed several TXU executives to state agencies, issued an executive order in October 2005 directing state regulators to "prioritize and expedite" permit applications for electricity generation.
Environmentalists also argue that the stateâ€™s main regulatory body, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, has failed to perform thorough analysis of the plantsâ€™ potential impact.
Some local lawmakers are also opposing TXUâ€™s proposals. Dallas Mayor Laura Miller sent a memo to her counterparts in dozens of other Texas cities requesting funds to hire lawyers and consultants to fight the new coal plants. In June, Miller and Houston Mayor Robert Cluck announced the formation of the Alliance of Texas Cities for Clean Air, a coalition of mayors, to promote the development of alternatives to coal-burning plants.
Meanwhile, many opponents of the new power plants have turned out at public hearings across the state to express their concerns. This Friday, Texans will demonstrate at the state capital in Austin to protest Gov. Perryâ€™s "fast-tracking" of permits for TXU.