The coal toll: Taking another look at America's comeback kid

From the Editor

Coal is older than God, practically, and like the Beatles and Duran Duran, more popular than Jesus (at any rate, its lobbying base is nothing to sneeze at). But while politicians embrace it as the key to America’s energy independence, it’s time to reconsider this bedrock (ahem) of our well-lit society with the help of a new Sierra Club report issued last week that details its dirty trail of mercury, smog, and carbon dioxide from mine to ash.

“In addition to being the largest source of sulfur dioxide pollution,” the report reminds us, “coal-fired power plants are the second-largest source of nitrogen oxides (NOx) in the nation, earning them a reputation as a major contributor to smog,” or ground-level ozone. The study also points out that communities of color tend to suffer disproportionately from the poor air quality created by plants that fuel entire regions but pollute unevenly, and cites a finding that 60 percent of Latinos and 50 percent of African-Americans live in communities that are failing two or more national air-quality standards. This is true for one-third of whites.

The exposé, titled The Dirty Truth About Coal, is a timely reminder that the recent partial victory against some of the proposed TXU coal plants is just the beginning of an uphill battle. When a partnership including Fort Worth-based TPG announced in March that it was buying out TXU for $45 billion, it withdrew eight permit requests, but four new units — including CPS’s in San Antonio — have been green-lighted, and four other plants are in the works, too.

“A lot of people think because of `the TXU` deal the coal rush ended,” says the Sierra Club’s Donna Hoffman, “but there are still 11 units moving forward.”

The most recent TXU plant to get the go-ahead, Oak Grove near Waco, will dig deeper into Texas’s lignite mines, which produce a dirty brown coal that hasn’t proven amenable to some of the alleged “clean coal” treatments. Community activists plan to appeal the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s ruling, which ran counter to the recommendation of a state administrative law judge panel.

The new plants are bad news for Texas, where childhood asthma cases have almost doubled in the past decade, and where nine metropolitan areas will likely slide into federal “non-attainment” status for ozone when the EPA adopts stricter standards for measuring the global-warming culprit in 2008. In other words, the federal standards are finally catching up with the actual air quality in cities such as San Antonio, which is expected to join Dallas and Houston on the offenders list.

“One big thing that we could do in Texas to meet attainment under the Clean Air Act is to not build new coal plants,” says Hoffman. “In this moment when we’re finding all these ways that we can significantly reduce energy demand, the industry is still trying to push coal plants, which we know are very bad for our health.”

By “in this moment” Hoffman means not only the nationwide interest in low-carbon diets, and the Supreme Court’s ruling that the EPA can’t pass the buck on monitoring CO2 standards, but the recent bill sponsored by San Antonio’s Joe Straus. HB 3693 requires state and other governmental entities such as school districts to reduce their energy consumption by 30 percent over six years by installing energy-efficient light sources and, in the case of state agencies, purchasing Energy Star appliances. One disappointment this session, however, was the failure to tie coal-plant permitting to demonstrated need — despite the fact that the lege meets in Austin, which has a successful energy-efficiency demonstration program and an emerald-green enviro reputation, but like SA is about to be tagged “non-attaining” under the proposed tougher EPA standards.

Texas’s struggle with its coal habit has national implications, too, as the push is on for unproven “clean coal” technologies such as carbon capture and sequestration (read: pumping the gases underground and hoping to hell the planet doesn’t belch) — abetted by prominent Democrats such as Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, and presidential wannabes Christopher Dodd and Barack Obama. The Sierra Club’s report concludes with a warning that any way you scrub it, coal is not the answer. Maybe, if we’re vigilant, the state that became synonymous with “oil” can become the new face of coal-free conservation.

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