Is Texas, the state with the biggest coal consumption, headed into another round of high-profile battles over new coal-fired electricity generation?

That seems increasingly possible.

In 2007 an anti-coal coalition including environmentalists and dozens of Texas mayors celebrated victory over Gov. Rick Perry and other coal proponents when Dallas-based TXU Corp. scrapped plans for eight of 11 new coal-burning power plants.

CoalAlhough the coal issue hasn’t been getting the same level of media attention as it did leading up to the resolution of the TXU fight, environmentalists and their allies have continued efforts against other proposed coal plants in the state.

Now, a series of potentially interactive events in the air quality arena point to the possibility of a return to greater prominence for the coal issue.

More generally, these developments also raise the prospect of major reductions in existing air pollution emissions in the state – both in conventional, already-regulated pollutants and in not-yet-regulated greenhouse gases – from coal-using power plants and other industrial sources.

Coal is intensely controversial because burning it produces large volumes of currently regulated pollutants, such as particulate matter and smog-forming nitrogen oxides, as well as the leading greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide . The Obama administration is moving to regulate greenhouse gases administratively under the existing Clean Air Act as Congress considers new legislation to do the same thing.

Air pollution control is an exceedingly complex field of government activity and changes in the way it is carried out often unfold slowly, over long spans of time. It’s too early to predict, in other words, what the recent developments could ultimately mean for Texas.

Separately or in various synergistic combinations, however, they appear to have the potential to trigger some major changes in the state.

On Thursday, for example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would notify Gov. Rick Perry that Harris County, which has violated the national health standard for ozone (“smog”) for decades, is also now in violation of one of the two national standards for particulate matter. A formal designation in 2010 of the county as a “nonattainment area” for the particulate standard would trigger a process that might lead to new emission-limiting requirements for sources of tiny airborne particles, potentially including large power plants and petrochemical facilities. Pollution-cutting measures with a narrower focus could also be the outcome, however.

Also on Thursday, EPA officials from Washington, North Carolina and Dallaswere scheduled to hold meetings in Austin with state officials, industry officials, and environmental and community group representatives to discuss the EPA’s proposed move to strengthen the state’s system for issuing air pollution permits to major industries.

The Dallas Morning News reported at the time that move was announced in September that it “may be the opening of a new, less-cozy relationship between the federal agency and the state, which handles several federal environmental laws on behalf of the EPA.”

Reporter Randy Lee Loftis added: “In targeting three Texas permitting programs on Tuesday, the EPA said the TCEQ hasn’t been doing enough to make sure companies don’t treat major changes to their plants, which trigger much more intense regulatory scrutiny, as minor ones that get less attention.”

On Tuesday, in an action closely related to the issue of whether Texas’ permit procedures are tough enough, the advocacy group Public Citizen sued the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in a Travis County district court, seeking to compel the permit-issuing agency to regulate greenhouse gases blamed for global warming and climate change.

In response to a lawsuit by 12 other states, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that carbon dioxide should be considered a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. As a result of that ruling, the Obama administration announced last week that it was moving ahead with previously unveiled plans to regulate emissions of the gas at major power plants and other industrial facilities.

Public Citizen’s Texas lawsuit was based on arguments similar to those used by the 12 states in their successful federal litigation. The group made clear that the TCEQ’s permit actions related to new coal-fired power plants, especially soon-to-start hearings on permits for five new plants, were a key reason for its lawsuit. It devoted much of an announcement about the legal action to the coal issue:

In the past four years, 11 coal plants (in Texas) have applied for (TCEQ) permits under the EPA’s New Source Review program, which requires companies to install modern pollution controls when building new plants or expanding existing facilities. If they were all to be built, they would add 77 million tons of CO2 to Texas’ already overheated air. Six permits already have been granted for plants that will produce CO2 emissions of 42 million tons per year. Another five are in the permitting stages, and they would add 35 million tons of CO2 per year ….

(Texas Public Citizen director Tom “Smitty”) Smith noted that the TCEQ is undermining even the inadequate mitigation strategies that several coal plant builders are proposing. The NU Coastal plant promised to offset 100 percent of its CO2 emissions, but the TCEQ refused to make that promise part of the permit. Tenaska is promising to separate 85 percent of the carbon it emits, but it is not in the draft permit from the TCEQ. The Hunton coal gasification plant will separate 90 percent of its CO2, but the TCEQ classified it as an “experimental technology” so it wouldn’t set a precedent for other coal plant applications. NRG is promising to offset 50 percent of its emissions.

“Without the TCEQ putting these limits in the permits, there will be no guarantee that the power plant builders will keep their promises,” Smith said.

TCEQ Chairman Bryan W. Shaw responded to the lawsuit by continuing to challenge the science behind manmade climate change and the economic wisdom of regulations to limit it. The Morning News reported:

“The science on global warming is far from settled,” Shaw, an associate professor of biological and agricultural engineering at Texas A&M, said in a prepared statement. He said regulations implemented incorrectly “will impose great costs on Texas, without any guarantee of a measurable environmental benefit. Reducing CO2 in Texas will do nothing to lower CO2 globally, but will have the effect of sending U.S. jobs to China and India.”

Public Citizen is not the only environmental organization putting pressure on Shaw’s agency over the TCEQ’s permit procedures related to air pollution.

On Wednesday, in an action keyed to Thursday’s Austin meetings on the permit issue, the Washington-based Environmental Integrity Project joined three Texas groups – the Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention (GHASP) and the Texas offices of the Sierra Club and Environmental Defense Fund – in calling on the EPA to take stiff action if the TCEQ does not overhaul its permit program.

Specifically, the groups said that in the absence of an adequate state response, the EPA should formally place “Texas on a timeline to either fix the program or face sanctions and a possible federal takeover.”

The Washington-based signatory to that appeal, the Environmental Integrity Project, can probably be expected to receive an attentive hearing at very high levels in the Obama administration.

The organization’s founder and executive director, Eric Schaeffer, directed the EPA’s Office of Regulatory Enforcement from 1997-2002. During the part of that period in the Clinton administration, he launched a successful series of lawsuits against some of the nation’s largest electric utilities, charging that they “violat(ed) the Clean Air Act by expanding their coal-fired electric plants without controlling emissions such as nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide–noxious gases that cause smog, asthma, lung cancer, and premature death.”

The Clinton administration’s EPA chief at the time of that enforcement initiative was Carol Browner, now the chief environment and energy adviser in the Obama White House.

– Bill Dawson

Photo credit: © Dallas Powell –