Skip to main content

Coal Comfort

So what if coal, the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, faces tightening air-pollution standards from federal regulators? Texas is aggressively building new coal plants. An air-pollution permit recently approved for a plant in Matagorda County is one of six granted to projects that are not yet up and running, and four more projects — near Abilene, Odessa, Sweeny and Corpus Christi — have sought permits. Texas, which consumes far more coal power than any other state, already has 19 operating coal-fired power plants, the majority of which are in East Texas.

Lead image for this article

So what if coal, the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, faces tightening air-pollution standards from federal regulators? Texas — probably more than any other state — is aggressively building new coal plants.

A permit recently approved for a coal plant in Matagorda County, known as the White Stallion Energy Center, is one of six granted to projects that are not yet up and running, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, while four more projects — near Abilene, Odessa, Sweeny and Corpus Christi — are seeking permits, including several that plan to store some of their greenhouse gas emissions underground. The TCEQ will hold a discussion about one of those four, a proposed plant called the Las Brisas Energy Center near Corpus, on Friday, though it's unlikely a permit will be granted then. Texas, which consumes far more coal power than any other state, already has 19 operating coal-fired power plants, the majority of which are in East Texas. (Some plants, including the proposed Las Brisas facility, burn petroleum coke, a refinery byproduct that is similar to coal.)

Industry officials say the plants are needed to meet an ever-growing demand for energy, and coal provides it most cheaply, without the drawbacks of alternative power sources such as wind. To environmentalists, coal is an anathema. "The writing is on wall across country that this is an outdated source of energy," said Eva Hernandez, a field organizing manager for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. She says the TCEQ's continued granting of permits is disappointing if not surprising — and sometimes occurs despite concerns from local residents and administrative law judges, whose hearings precede the state agency's decision. Regulatory agencies or judges in a number of other states have refused to issue permits to coal plants.

The Texas coal expansion comes against a backdrop of tighter regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency — and, indeed, the EPA recently tightened standards for nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide, two key pollutants from coal and other plants. Richard Hyde, the TCEQ's deputy director of permitting and registration, says the agency has told facilities with pending permit applications that they must show compliance with the new standards. Soon, perhaps within the next month, the EPA is due to issue stricter rules for ozone. This will probably mean that more areas of the state — including Austin, Waco, San Antonio and El Paso — will be classed as too polluted. So the coal plants should eventually be subject to new ozone requirements, after state-level regulations to carry out the EPA's restrictions are put in place.

Meanwhile, regional air-quality officials in Texas are concerned about the coal plants, whose pollution can travel wherever the wind blows. "TCEQ needs to be more mindful of the impact of these huge coal-fired power plants," said Bill Gill, the air quality program manager at the Austin-based Capital Area Council of Governments.

Then there's the granddaddy of them all: greenhouse gas regulation. Coal emits far more greenhouse gases than its main competitor in Texas, natural gas. Coal accounts for 37 percent of Texas' electricity use, compared to 42 percent for gas.

The EPA is due to begin regulating greenhouse gas emissions in January, and coal plants will be a big target; those regulations, gentle at first, are likely to get more demanding over time. But the EPA faces legal and political challenges to its new rules — especially from the state of Texas, whose officials have said they will not carry out them out — so it is unclear when or if coal plants will be subject to them.

"It’s too early to tell what impact, if any, upcoming EPA rules might have on Luminant," said Allan Koenig, a spokesman for Luminant, Texas' largest coal-plant operator, referring to both potential ozone and greenhouse gas requirements.

Power shortage?

Given the tightening environmental regulations, why are so many coal plants on the drawing boards? For one thing, coal is cheap — often the cheapest source of electricity around the country. Coal plants can operate around the clock, whereas renewable sources like wind, the great hope of Texas environmentalists, can only generate power intermittently. And it's a domestic source of energy. Some Texas plants, including the five owned by Luminant, even use coal mined within the state; others import the coal from the Upper Midwest or Wyoming. 

Environmentalists successfully derailed eight of 11 proposed coal plants three years ago in a giant deal involving TXU, whose electricity-generation arm is now called Luminant. They argue that Texas does not need big new coal plants to meet electricity demand, which has been dampened somewhat by the recent recession.

Rikki Stanley, White Stallion's director of local development, noted that in several decades, the population of Texas will nearly double. "We're not concerned about, 'Will there be a need?' There is a need," said Stanley, who also suggested that financing the operation would go smoothly. The ground-breaking could take place by next summer, he said, and construction should provide 2,000 temporary jobs. 

But Ross Baldick, a professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Texas, argued that wind — with other energy sources as a back-up when the wind dies down — will provide an increasing share of Texas's around-the-clock electricity, displacing coal. In addition, he said, coal will suffer if natural gas stays cheap and the federal government, as some expect, makes carbon dioxide emissions more costly.

Provided that wind growth continues as anticipated in Texas's big transmission-line build-out, "I am at a loss to understand the new coal investments in ERCOT," Baldick wrote in an e-mail. ERCOT refers to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state's grid operator. Its records indicate that while plenty of coal is planned, so is even more natural gas power.

Fighting fire with water

Apart from the debates about the need for coal and the air pollution it causes, another issue that could snag coal plants is their need for water. All major coal plants burn their fuel and then need vast amounts of water to generate steam, which powers the turbines that create electricity. Environmentalists — aware they're unlikely to stop the granting of permits by the TCEQ — are campaigning hard to persuade communities not to provide their water to power plants. This summer, to the delight of environmentalists, the mayor of Abilene announced his opposition to the city's provision of treated wastewater to a proposed coal plant called the Tenaska Trailblazer Energy Center

White Stallion, for its part, still needs to secure a source of water even though it got its air permit. It also needs a wastewater permit from the TCEQ and another permit from the Army Corps of Engineers — though the air-pollution permit, which it received last month, is considered the big one. Stanley of White Stallion said securing water from the Lower Colorado River Authority was "one of our options."

A few coal plants are hoping to appease environmentalists by capturing carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants and shoving them underground, where they would hopefully stay. One of these, still in the permit-application process, is Summit Power's proposed $2 billion coal plant near Odessa, which calls itself the Texas Clean Energy Project and is championed by former Dallas mayor Laura Miller. The idea is to capture emissions and pump them into nearby oil fields where they can be used to squeeze out the oil. But this technology, while proven, comes at a high cost. 

ConocoPhillips also hopes to use carbon capture and sequestration technology for a proposed petroleum-coke plant near Sweeny, appended to an oil refinery; last year it received $3 million from the Department of Energy to assist with the project. This week, the proposed Tenaska plant near Abilene received a $7.7 million grant from an Australian group for its carbon capture and storage technology; the company agreed earlier this year with an environmental group to store 85 percent of its carbon-dioxide emissions.

Texans need truth. Help us report it.

Support independent Texas news

Become a member. Join today.

Donate now

Explore related story topics

Energy Environment