HOUSTON -- Is Texas becoming hostile to coal?
In the state that is the nation's biggest source of greenhouse gas pollution, environmental groups are becoming optimistic that the tide could now be turning in their battles against coal-fired generators. They won a fight to prevent the construction of a massive new coal-fired power plant about 90 miles southwest of Houston.
The White Stallion Energy Center would have had a generating capacity of 1,200 megawatts, enough annual power for more than 200,000 Texas homes. In a rapidly growing state with huge power needs and an industry-friendly government, the project seemed like a done deal for many when it was announced more than four years ago.
But last week, White Stallion Energy LLC announced it was suspending its plans to build the plant in Matagorda County. Eva Malina at the No Coal Coalition of Matagorda County, a group that formed to halt the project, said the first signs that something was up came about three weeks ago.
"I had some inkling that it was going to happen because they had moved all the furniture out of their offices here in Bay City and moved a copy machine out, and it looked like they were in the process of leaving," Malina said.
Stiff and organized opposition among locals and green groups in Austin, stringent U.S. EPA regulations on new coal-fired generation, and the Obama administration's renewed commitment to combat climate change all seem to have persuaded developers of White Stallion to give up. But company officials also said that record low natural gas prices in North America, a force waylaying other coal projects, made the White Stallion project less economical.
"White Stallion Energy, LLC announces today that it is suspending development of its 1,200 MW power project in Matagorda County," company Chief Operating Officer Randy Bird said in a statement.
Obama speech a factor
Bird said his company felt that it could not get past new rules being developed by EPA, suggesting that regulators there were moving to make new coal-fired power in the United States basically illegal. But Bird also specifically mentioned President Obama's State of the Union speech, delivered one week ago, saying that the tone suggested more problems ahead for White Stallion.
"Proposed rules issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency effectively prohibit solid-fuel power generation," Bird added. "And pronouncements by the Administration -- most recently in the President's State of the Union message -- continue to indicate that additional regulator barriers to such projects will be erected."
Environmental groups engaged in the long and bitter fight against the White Stallion project expressed relief at the announcement. The project was originally launched in 2008.
"White Stallion has finally seen the writing on the wall," Tom Weber, lead counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in Austin, said in a statement. "This is a big win for clean air in Texas and for the Environmental Defense Fund."
Problems for the company particularly mounted within the last year.
On Jan. 10, 2012, the Texas Supreme Court rejected an appeal by White Stallion's developers of a lower court's decision to send its air pollution permit back to regulators at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). That lower court had ruled favorably in a complaint by EDF that the TCEQ permit was improperly authorized.
One week later, the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club followed up with a lawsuit against TCEQ, alleging that officials there were improperly fast-tracking permits for coal-fired power plants in the state that would allow them to emit more air pollution during startup, shutdown and maintenance periods. The Sierra Club suit had argued that TCEQ didn't allow enough time for more review and public comment.
Concerns over water use and mercury
White Stallion also faced stiff opposition from locals in the region where it would have been built. Residents in the region complained of the mercury pollution they believed it would bring and expressed worries about the large volumes of water the plant would consume. The strong Texas drought of 2011 only intensified fears over water usage by power generators.
Developers insisted that what they were planning to build would have been among the most environmentally friendly coal-fired power plants in the world.
They promised to process emissions during and after combustion, using techniques to scrub out nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides, the main causes of acid rain. The company also said it would use activated carbon to limit mercury emissions, as well as capture particulates before they could be released into the atmosphere.
But those promises seem to have fallen on deaf ears, at least among the No Coal Coalition. As early as Friday, "Say No to White Stallion" and "Stop White Stallion" signs could be seen hanging from fences at homes near Bay City. That group later shouted "victory!" on its website, on a page featuring Bird's statement announcing the closure of White Stallion.
"The No Coal Coalition is thrilled, for the health of citizens of Matagorda County and the ecosystem," Malina said. "We are a county that's got a lot of agriculture and a lot of fishing-related industry, shrimpers and commercial fishermen as well as recreational fishing, and that would have really put a damper on that because of the mercury that they would have pumped out, and the lead, as well."
"There are lots of people that got involved in our organization," she added. "We ran out of signs. We essentially just printed up and handed out as many as we could do and still have people wanting signs."
Low-cost wind and gas play a role
Texas regulators have in the past authorized the construction of nine new coal-fired generators. But the end of White Stallion, and the cancellation of a similar project near Corpus Christi, has coal opponents in this state emboldened.
At the close of last year, a developer announced the suspension of the Las Brisas project. Developers of that effort proposed generating electricity from burning petroleum coke, a material similar to coal.
Low natural gas prices aren't the only thing that is helping coal opponents' cause. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) recently announced that the state's massive wind power generating capacity is churning out more energy than ever.
On the evening of Feb. 9, ERCOT said, wind generation in Texas hit a record, supplying 9,481 MW of electricity to the system's load, or 28 percent of the total. Green groups are crediting the success of the wind industry for further hurting the prospects of building new coal-fired power plants in Texas.
Texas is still home to the most coal-fired power generation in the country. A website that U.S. EPA launched in January of last year that lets visitors track the largest sources of greenhouse gases in the country showed that Texas was far and away the biggest culprit. The EPA data showed greenhouse gas emissions levels from Texas exceeding those of the next two biggest source states combined.
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