Texas environmentalists can be more influential and less united than some might suppose, as a climate-related agreement involving one key advocacy group illustrated this week.

TenaskaA Nebraska-based company agreed on Monday to capture at least 85 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted by a new coal-fired power plant near Abilene in return for a pledge by the Environmental Defense Fund to drop its formal opposition to a state air permit for the facility.

EDF logoJim Marston, EDF’s Austin-based national energy program director, said the agreement is legally binding and signifies “the end of an era in Texas” when coal plants can be built without capturing and storing carbon.

The Abilene Reporter-News reported that Tenaska, the company that plans to build the plant between Abilene and Stillwater, would pay financial penalties under the non-public agreement with EDF if it does not meet the 85-percent target.

EDF provided Texas Climate News this explanatory passage from the agreement:

In the event of non-compliance with the sequestration requirements, Tenaska has agreed to pay EDF liquidated damages on a per ton basis. EDF would use that money to pay for CO2 emission reduction or sequestration [storage] projects elsewhere.

Both parties, the Abilene newspaper reported, can seek enforcement in court.

Even so, other environmental groups that focus on energy and climate issues in Texas – Public Citizen, the Sierra Club and the Environmental Integrity Project – indicated they are not abandoning their opposition to the emission permit that Tenaska is seeking from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Tom “Smitty” Smith, Texas director of Public Citizen, issued a statement that briefly congratulated EDF and Tenaska for forging an enforceable deal on carbon dioxide, which he said was something the TCEQ “should be doing.”

Smith’s statement, however, was mainly devoted to posing a series of questions that he said “remain unanswered due to the confidential nature of the agreement,” such as whether it is contingent on congressional approval of a federal cap-and-trade system for emissions of greenhouse gases. Such a regulatory system, embodied in a House-passed bill, would impose a cap on emissions and allow the trading of emission permits.

The Reporter-News quoted Ilan Levin, an attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project who is also representing the Sierra Club on the Tenaska proposal, as saying he hopes the company’s agreement with EDF about carbon dioxide can become part of the state permit.

The Sierra Club and Environmental Integrity Project also want lower allowable levels than a draft permit contains for other air pollutants that pose respiratory hazards, he said.

Smith’s statement echoed such concerns: “In summary, this is still a dirty old coal plant and we oppose it.”

Writing on EDF’s Energy Exchange blog, Marston said:

You’ve heard us say before that we are not champions of coal, but we are realists.

Realists can also be idealists. We still want the same things – cleaner air and water, and clean, sustainable energy – and yet we know that the transition away from fossil fuels as a major energy source will take some time and require interim collaborative solutions.

The 600-megawatt Tenaska plant, formally named the Trailblazer Energy Center, has a projected cost of $3.5 billion and could open as early as 2015.

EDF’s announcement of the agreement said the company’s commitment to capture 85 percent or more of the plant’s CO2 emissions would make the plant one of the first in the world to prevent that much of the gas from entering the atmosphere. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that the company said it would be the first “utility-scale” facility with that achievement.

Under the plan, the carbon dioxide captured when coal is burned to make electricity would be sold to oil-drilling companies, which would then inject it underground in a standard technique that enhances the ability to pump oil from certain types of deposits.

The EDF press release announcing the agreement included this quote from Tenaska Vice President of Environmental Affairs Dr. Greg Kunkel:

A few years ago, we determined it would be shortsighted to build new coal-fueled electric generating plants without answering the CO2 question. Our philosophy hasn’t changed. If anything, our strategy in developing large-scale carbon capture has been reinforced since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has officially recognized CO2 as a pollutant.

[Texas officials are formally challenging the EPA’s designation of CO2 as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, which is a necessary precursor to regulation of emissions by the agency.]

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, the Houston-based electricity producer Calpine Corp, subject of an earlier article in TCN Journal, made a coal-related announcement of its own.

Calpine said it had agreed to buy 19 Connectiv Energy power plants from Washington-based Pepco Holdings and convert the two plants that burn coal to use natural gas, which produces less CO2 and conventional pollution. Connectiv provides electricity to customers in New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. Jack A. Fusco, Calpine’s president and CEO, was quoted as saying that the transaction “reaffirms our view that natural gas-fired and renewable generation are the core components of the energy solution for our country’s future and our commitment to that business model.”

– Bill Dawson

Image credits: Tenaska, Environmental Defense Fund