Coal Fired Up!

Categories: News

In the new issue of Time there's a bonus section called "Inside Business," and inside that is a story called "Is Coal Golden?" If you ask Mike McCall, head of wholesale operations at TXU, and Governor Rick Perry, the answer, of course, is absolutely. If you ask Mayor Laura Miller and the 17 other Texas mayors she recruited to join her Texas Citizens for Climate Protection the answer, of course, is absolutely not. It's a pity the Time piece isn't online, as it provides the best recapping and explanation of the coal debate thus far. After the jump a few choice excerpts without giving away too much. Before then you can read this story from last week, about why California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill that wouldn't allow coal-fired plants in his state, and this Associated Press story about how the Sierra Club's in Kanas trying to stop coal-fired plants there. --Robert Wilonsky


Over the next 25 years, the Department of Energy predicts the use of coal will provide an increasing portion of our power--up to nearly 60%, from 52%. Convened by the Secretary of Energy, the National Coal Council (McCall is a member) has laid out an aggressive energy plan using coal over the next two decades. Coal production is expected to soar from 1.1 billion tons a year to 1.8 billion--mostly from the West, especially Wyoming's Powder River Basin...

The U.S. is, after all, the Saudi Arabia of coal. We have more than 200 years of coal reserves at our current burn rate...

King Coal's new popularity, however, is like a runaway mine train heading for a collision with states and cities struggling to meet pollution standards...

New limits on CO2 are already springing up piecemeal outside Washington. California will require all major industries to reduce greenhouse emissions, including CO2, 25%--to 1990 levels--before 2020...

Texas, which operates on an electric grid all its own, is just two years shy of running low on reserve power, the stuff that gets the state through energy peaks during its 100� summers. Governor Rick Perry...got a fresh lesson in the unreliability of natural gas, which provides a whopping 72% of the state's generating capacity, when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita disrupted supply lines in 2005. So late last year, after a closed-door meeting in Austin with TXU, the Governor announced that he was streamlining the permitting process for new coal plants.

Perry, who helped turn Texas into the nation's No. 1 wind-energy producer, has become coal's cheerleader in chief, defying calls to copy California on emissions. Texas already emits 10% of the nation's greenhouse gases, placing it ahead of countries like Britain or Canada in terms of output. Its power plants top the nation in toxic mercury emissions. But Perry has said, in effect, don't mess with Texas. "I, for one, don't want to tell Texans to ration air-conditioning," he wrote recently in a Dallas Morning News editorial that rejected the idea of stricter sanctions on CO2 emissions. Coal is a campaign issue, dividing Republicans in a state that is firmly red.

"Clean coal" technology certainly exists... Ohio-based American Electric Power, the largest utility in the U.S., is working with General Electric and Bechtel to emulate Tampa and build two of the nation's first commercial-scale integrated coal gasification plants. These plants...can be retrofitted more cheaply to capture the carbon gas... But McCall...says he needs a low-cost, reliable supply of electricity fast... Waiting until the next decade, when new technologies are proved, would be "devastating" for supply, warns McCall.

In Dallas, Mayor Laura Miller, a feisty former journalist, isn't buying that argument... She has no other choice than to fight. [Dallas] is already a "non-attainment zone" for smog.

If you go to TXU's granddaddy of coal plants, Big Brown, built in the early 1970s in the rolling hills of east Texas, the sky is a pristine blue above two big smokestacks. That's illusory...

Miller, of course, went on a Big Brown tour too and promptly popped open a canister of coal, she says, to shrieks of "No, it's filthy!" from the TXU staff. "They don't see the irony," she says. "'Why would you want to touch the coal?' they asked. My response? 'Why would I want to breathe it?'" TXU estimates the plant emits 82,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, 6,700 tons of nitrogen oxide and 1,180 lbs. of mercury a year--not to mention 10 million tons of unregulated carbon dioxide. Now it wants to add a third smokestack.

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