Mar 23, 2010

Coal Plants: Cheap Energy or Dirty Dozen?

By Priscilla Totiyapungprasert and Jeff Heimsath

Las Brisas Energy Center has big plans for the north side of Corpus Christi’s Inner Harbor: a 1,200-megawatt power plant that supporters say could also power up a slow job market. But those plans will have to wait, at least for now. In a legal showdown between the utility and opponents, the Texas State Office of Administrative Hearings recommended more input from both sides.

The recommendations, from administrative law judges Tommy Broyles and Craig Bennett, aren’t binding–they are only guidance for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. But the report from the judges, released on March 29, 2010, recommends that both sides present new evidence to the TCEQ. That won’t happen until at least late spring. Both the energy center and environmental groups have until April 29 to file any objections to the judges report and the TCEQ hearing can’t happen until after that.

In contrast to Texas’s pioneering role in renewable energy, any new positions created in building and operating the plant, if it proceeds, won’t be green jobs. The Las Brisas project will be fueled by petroleum coke and that has some environmentalists seeing red. It’s the latest round in a familiar tale — economics versus the environment; job creation or environmental stewardship. Will the project energize a stagnant job market or short-circuit the environment?

Las Brisas is the 12th such plant — designated as coal-fired because the technology is the same for petroleum coke — under review. That’s on top of 17 existing coal- or coke-fired plants. Texas leads the nation in wind energy but also in both proposed coal plants and energy already produced by coal. As the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality considers allowing the Las Brisas plant to be built in Corpus Christi, the agency faces strong criticism from activists, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the plant’s prospective neighbors.

Before the EPA got involved, TCEQ had approved every coal-fired plant ever proposed in Texas, according to Tom Smith, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, an advocacy group for government transparency. Smith says those permits violated the Federal Clean Air Act. Only after a fusillade of complaints — including protests, petitions, lawsuits, and pressure from the EPA under the Obama administration — did the commission agree to revise part of its permitting process. Steve Hagle, director of TCEQ’s air permit division, said that he doesn’t think Texas violated the Clean Air Act but that the agency had no choice about revising the permit procedure once Washington got involved.

The $3.2 billion Las Brisas project would be Corpus Christi’s largest single capital investment Christi ever, which helps explain why Mayor Joe Adame backs the plan. But opposition voices were also plentiful at a state hearing in November 2009, where both sides had 10 days to present their cases. Administrative Judges Tommy Broyles and Craig Bennett oversaw the hearing after state judges denied motions filed by the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund to block the Las application.

TCEQ, the Las Brisas Energy Center and Mayor Adame supported the power plant, saying the project could improve the port of Corpus Christi, increase tax revenue and create at least 80 permanent jobs and perhaps 1,300 construction jobs. “They aren’t looking at the environmental impact, like they should,” said Public Citizen’s Smith. “It’s all about how much growth [the companies] can bring to the Texas economy.”

Half a dozen groups opposed the coal plant, including the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund, which said the plant did not provide an efficient way to handle fuel emissions. Corpus Christi residents also expressed disdain for the project. Physicians argued that the coal plant would harm public health.

5210coal1“The dirty air and dirty water we pay for now, our children will also pay for in health care costs,” said Eva Hernandez, a representative of the Sierra Club’s Beyond CoalCampaign.

Hernandez said that for every job coal creates, renewable energy could create four. This argument, too, is complex. Texas doesn’t mine coal — it imports it from Wyoming. But petroleum coke is generated locally and is often sold overseas.

While renewable energy sources such as wind turbines and solar panels may sound ideal, they still face plenty of obstacles. “These include a lack of inadequate incentives, cost and time for return on investment, local ordinances that restrict the installation of renewable fuel sources, and public perception and bias,” said Joe Kordzi, an environmental engineer with the EPA.

Although coal plants can reduce some emissions by capturing post-combustion particles and storing them, Kordzi said, any coal- or coke-fired plant still releases greenhouse gases and contributes to acid rain — it is only a matter of degree.

In October 2009, the EPA criticized TCEQ for inadequately regulating air pollution from energy plants and thus not adhering to the Texas Clean Air Act. Erik Hendrickson, a technical specialist in TCEQ’s air permit department, says that critique isn’t about power generation, it’s about politics.

“Texas rules haven’t changed, but the administration has,” Hendrickson said. “Texas is way out front in renewable energy as well, and we’re the highest producer of wind energy. The new administration has a political agenda against some of the things we do.”

5210coal2Las Brisas Energy Center applied for the 1,200-megawatt energy plant in May 2008, but the proposal stalled for more than a year as the company revised the plant’s details to better fit the state regulation. Although the plant is to be powered by petroleum coke, TCEQ classifies it as a coal-fueled power plant because petroleum coke is similar to coal.

The administrative judges, Broyles and Bennett, allowed input from both sides until closing statements on Dec. 14, 2009. Although they allowed a number of presentations, they dismissed arguments related to economic growth and global warming. They did, however, review public health concerns. Their ruling on March 29, 2010, took issue with the Las Brisas Energy Center’s position over levels of “secondary emissions”–pollution generated somewhere other than the plant, but related to generating the electricity. In this case, the judges found that the Las Brisas plant underestimated the amount of pollution that would come from handling the petroleum coke at the Port of Corpus Christi on its way to the generators and suggested a more rigorous environmental study.

TCEQ found several other problems with the Las Brisas plant that the company must fix before it can get a permit, said Ray Hamilton, a TCEQ permit engineer and head reviewer of the Las Brisas coal plant.

Even the pollution concerns are complex. Petroleum coke and coal are burned under stringent pollution-recapture regulations in the U.S., reducing air pollution but still contributing to mercury pollution in waterways. Beau Champe, a physiologist at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, described the process. Mercury falls into the water and is absorbed into plants. Fish then eat the plants, and they can’t break the mercury compound down. People who then eat the fish risk mercury poisoning, which is especially dangerous for pregnant women and their fetuses.

Another twist is that many foreign power plants have few emission restrictions — so selling Texas-generated petroleum coke overseas could yield more global pollution than burning it here.

Hamilton, the TCEQ engineer, said that under the present proposal, Las Brisas would be allowed to emit twice as much mercury as the White Stallion Energy Center, another proposed petroleum coke plant. Hamilton says he still hasn’t seen an explanation for that disparity from engineers on either project.

Texas produces more coal energy and emits more mercury than any other state, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency. It has also proposed more coal and coke plants, 12, than any other state. Michigan, in second place, has proposed four.

Nationwide, the United States produced over 2,100 tons of carbon dioxide from coal-fired plants in 2004, according to the most recent data available. That accounted for 35.8 percent of the country’s total carbon dioxide output, according to the Energy Information Agency. The carbon dioxide from coal-fired plants in the United States alone exceeds the amount produced by all fuel sources in Africa, South America and Central America combined. The agency also reported that if Texas were a country, it would be the eighth-largest carbon dioxide emitter in the world, just behind Canada.

In 2007 TXU Energy planned to build 11 coal-fired power plants in Texas. Environmental groups, grassroots organizers, political leaders and even celebrities rallied against TXU and their power plants, eventually managing to stave off construction. This time around, nine additional power companies and more apathy from the 2007 opponents make the fight more difficult, Public Citizen’s Smith said.

“It’s like everyone gave up the fight,” he said. “Without a common enemy, people think stopping these plants is impossible.”

The next step is a hearing by the TCEQ, sometime after April 29, but even that won’t be the end of the road. The decision can be appealed again to Corpus Christi’s 94th District Court.