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Laura Miller: The TT Interview

The former Dallas mayor on her new life as an energy policy nerd, leaving journalism for the "dark side" of elective office, her continuing frustration over the Trinity River Project and her (lack of) political aspirations.

Former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller

The latest incarnation of Laura Miller? Energy nerd. The muckraking reporter turned confrontational Dallas City Council member and then mayor has set her sights on bringing “cleaner” energy to Texas, and she’s found a way to get paid for it. Miller, who left office in 2007, is director of projects for Seattle-based Summit Power, an energy company developing “clean coal” — shorthand for coal gasification plants that capture carbon to reduce emissions. Her main focus: Summit’s Texas Clean Energy Project, a proposed $2 billion plant in West Texas that will sell the carbon dioxide it captures to help recover underground oil. Added bonus: It will also produce fertilizer.

It’s not Miller’s first time on the environmental circuit; as mayor, she led a statewide campaign against power conglomerate TXU's plans for 11 carbon-spewing coal plants, and the effort won her a 2008 Climate Protection Award.  

In an interview at the Dallas home she shares with her husband, former state Rep. Steve Wolens, Miller talked with the Tribune about her commitment to environmentally friendly power, her biggest disappointments since returning to the private sector and her (lack of) political aspirations. An edited transcript and an audio clip follow.

Q. For starters, let’s talk about what you’re up to these days, and your commitment to clean coal.

A. I’m really working hard to capture CO2. I’ve been [with Summit] since January of 2008. I am helping them develop an IGCC [integrated gasification combined cycle], a clean coal power plant that captures 90 percent of its CO2. It’s going to be in Odessa. We’re currently doing the front-end engineering design with Siemens, with Linde out of Germany — they’re doing all of our gas separation work — [and] Fluor, in Irving. Those three companies are doing the exact engineering and design of the project.

Audio: Laura Miller

Q. What’s this project going to cost, and how is it being paid for?  

A. The precise number is $2 billion with financing costs — that’s what we’re hoping we come in at. We break ground as soon as [the fundraising] is done, hopefully late summer or early fall of 2011. We got a $350 million award from the Department of Energy — an investment tax credit. We are in the top handful of carbon capture projects in the country that the DOE is counting on. The rest of the money we’re out raising. We need several hundred million dollars in private equity, [and] we need debt and bank loans to do the rest of it. We have local tax abatements in Ector County. Right now we’re talking to lots of people about financing; we have a really strong team going around the world talking to potential investors. One of the reasons why the DOE picked us is, we’re a “polygen” plant, meaning we make multiple products. We don’t count just on making power, which, at this point in America, if you’re just going to make power and capture carbon, is going to be very expensive.

Q. That’s been the criticism of these carbon-capture projects: that they’re super expensive for consumers. How much success are you all going to have when other projects — like the FutureGen carbon-capture project in Illinois — have fallen apart?

A. It’s about diversifying. For us, a third [of revenue] will come from power. A third [will come] from CO2, which we’ll pipe out to the oilfields. And a third will come from urea, which is a granular fertilizer. If you put coal in a gasifier, we can not only make power but also make fertilizer. So it’s multiple products. The irony is, we have a very robust buyer’s market for the CO2, and there’s a company negotiating with us on the urea, which also has strong demand. The hardest part of all of this is to get a long-term power agreement. We’re negotiating with a power company to buy the power for its customers, but it has been easier and faster doing those other agreements with other products. The challenge with capturing CO2 at the moment is that if you spend the extra capital costs to do it, and you don’t have a place to store it to make money on it, then you have a doubly expensive byproduct. That’s where a lot of these projects are getting into trouble with costs. We knew that the [Odessa] site was the best site in the country for a project like this because it literally sits on the oilfield. What we make goes into existing pipelines and goes to existing customers. People don’t realize there are more than 3,000 miles of CO2 pipelines in West Texas. The shame is, none of [the CO2] is man-made; it’s all natural.

Q. Is “clean coal really clean? Or just less dirty?  

A. It’s cleaner than a natural gas plant. Natural gas plants are always thought to be super clean, even in the environmental community. Because we capture 90 percent of carbon, we are cleaner than a natural gas plant. Coal plants that capture 65 percent of their carbon would be as clean as a natural gas plant. We do have sulfur and mercury, which are not elements you find in natural gas exhaust. Since we take out [well over 90 percent] of mercury and sulfur, the emissions are very, very low.

Q. Has this been an ethical gray area for you at all: fighting against dirty power plants, a really environmental cause, then going to work for a power company?

A. After I worked with environmentalists on the TXU plants, they wanted me to take the playbook on the road to teach communities how to battle dirty power plants. It seemed to me to make more sense to go and build the cleanest possible project. Once you do that, it becomes the new standard, and you can’t build a dirty plant anymore. That fall I went to Europe with some of the environmental groups that supported our fight, and I looked at IGCC plants in Italy and Germany and the Netherlands. At the end of the trip, I said to the clean air task force, "Why are we over here? All of their projects are paid for by their governments." They said, "We want you to meet a company that captures carbon." Back then, the IGCC plans were supposedly too expensive to build, and there was no such thing as true carbon capture — it was “carbon capture ready.” It was basically making room on the side of a dirty coal plant for “someday.” This company [Summit] could capture already, and they were proposing a Texas project. They said, “We’d like you to support this, because you fought all the dirty plants.” I said, “Oh, my gosh, I want to come help you build that.” It’s been a perfect role for me. Of all the things I did as mayor, it was the TXU battle that meant the most to me personally, because I’ve had breast cancer, because I see the world heating up, and I think that finding a way to take half the electricity in the U.S. and make it clean instead of dirty is essential.

Q. You sound like an energy policy nerd.

A. It’s true. Ninety-nine percent of the time, when I go out to a dinner party and I say what I’m doing, I see the immediate glaze. I’ve become this engineering wonk. I always say, “I know it sounds really boring, but I promise you’ll be happy I’m doing this.” I finally end it by saying, “I’m going to save the polar bears.”

Q. What do you think about natural gas drilling across North Texas and the possibility of it coming to Dallas?

A. I was gung-ho as member of the DFW Airport Board [about bringing drilling out there], because it was a great income stream, and both Dallas and Fort Worth got a piece of that. But as soon as I started reading about minor earthquakes in Tarrant County [because of Barnett Shale drilling], I thought, uh oh, this sounds like a problem. They’ve made the connection now between that and fracking. If I were back on the city council, I would be cautious and [would] want to know a lot more from the people doing the investigative work on what is happening in Tarrant County.

Q. What are your sentiments about the Trinity River Project, one of the biggest triumphs of your time in office, which has now hit delay after delay? 

A. My biggest disappointment about the Trinity since I left has been the [U.S. Army] Corps of Engineers, only because I met with the Corps of Engineers every single month when I was mayor. When they came out shortly after I left office and said, “We’ve got big problems, and everything has to stop,” it was shocking. Obviously they knew things when they were meeting with us. There was just no reason for that. For the one entity that can stop the project to suddenly come out and say “there are problems” is really disingenuous. If I was still at City Hall, I would’ve been very frustrated with the corps not communicating better.

Q. What do you think about the job Tom Leppert is doing as Dallas mayor?

A. One of the things I really appreciated about [my predecessor] Ron Kirk was that he never talked about how I was doing. I’m sticking to that. You move on, and you don’t judge.

Q. Do you miss City Hall at all or being in the mayor’s office?

A. I don’t really miss that. I’m so lucky, because the company I work with is in Seattle, and we’re this huge web of people working on this giant project. We’re all in different parts of the country. We’re constantly on BlackBerrys, constantly on conference calls, and it’s wonderful for me to be able to work in my jeans. My new lifestyle is so much better than my old lifestyle.

Q. You were a muckraking journalist, and lots of folks turned up their nose when you left journalism to enter politics. Now you’ve exited politics for the world of special interests. What do you say to your critics?

A. What’s been great for me, and unusual, is that I’m almost 52, and I’ve always been blessed with professions that I felt passionate about. I’ve gone naturally from being a hard-core crusading investigative reporter to building up so much frustration that I went to the “dark side” and became an elected official. And then, miraculously, I went from my last big crusade as mayor to a field that I could never have envisioned when I was 25 years old. If I hadn’t matured into the next level, I think I would’ve had a tougher time doing those jobs. People say I flip-flopped on the Trinity [River Project], but I remember so distinctly how safe it felt to oppose it when I was on the City Council, and how vulnerable I felt the day I became mayor. It was up to me to figure out a way to do something productive about it. [U.S. Sen.] Kay Bailey Hutchison sat me down and said, “You’ve got to do something now. You can’t just drop this project. You have to be productive.” You can’t possibly know that ahead of time. It’s like having children. You look at other people's kids screaming, and then you’re a parent, and suddenly you get it — the love and frustration.

Q. So what’s the next incarnation of Laura Miller? Another run for office?  

A. For me, not at all. It would be great if [Steve] did, but he’s focused on his law practice right now. He loves Texas. If he ran again for office, he would do it in Texas. It depends on where we are with our kids, where he is with his lawsuits and with the political opportunity. We literally don’t discuss it, but occasionally we say, "Wouldn’t it be great?" He was a natural at it. I went into it for different reasons. He loves the debate, loves finding the ultimate solution. He loves everything about that. I would get frustrated. I would see things going not the way I wanted them to. He loved that — when things went off the cliff. He would say, “Isn’t that fun!” I am completely out of that race. I could see working in an environmental capacity [in an appointed position], but I’d be a great campaign manager for Steve.

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