Two massive "coal" power projects in southeastern Texas have been cancelled in recent weeks. The first to be shelved was the Las Brisas Energy Center plant in Corpus Christi on January 23rd. The second was the White Stallion Energy Center project in Matagorda County, which was cancelled last week. There is much to celebrate in the demise of these projects.
For starters, it has sent shock waves in the Texas energy sector. After the White Stallion project was cancelled, E&E reporter Nathaniel Gronewold even asked, "is Texas becoming hostile to coal?"
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.There are many common denominators in the downfall of these high carbon, low intelligence projects.
1. Federal regulations matter
Both projects were rapidly approved for stack emissions permits by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) in 2008. In other words, you can see the fingerprints of an "industry friendly government."
The projects attempted to take advantage of regulatory uncertainty for power plants at the federal level. The EPA under George W. Bush implemented a weak standard for toxic emissions, even setting up a mercury emissions trading credit scheme that would have allowed older plants to continue to chug out tons of mercury each year. That rule was struck down in 2007 and the EPA entered into a consent decree in 2009 to settle lawsuits demanding enforcement of the Clean Air Act.
Without a federal guideline, citizen groups were forced to challenge TCEQ permits in court. Fortunately, after much wrangling and gnashing of teeth, the EPA finally issued new emission standards for power plants in 2011 (Mercury and Air Toxics Standards: MATS). The MATS regulations are the ones that James Inhofe and the rest of the crazy caucus are fighting tooth and nail. Inhofe and friends are not just skeptical about climate change; they are also skeptical that mercury, arsenic, other heavy metals, and particulate matter endanger human health. Perhaps they simply don't care if the emissions harm poor people living near the plants as long as fossil energy profits are not endangered.
Rather than pay for approved scrubbers, the developers for both projects threw in the towel,
blaming crediting the Obama administration.
"While market conditions played a role, the direct regulatory obstacles purposefully erected by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) resulted in the decision to suspend development of the plant."White Stallion Energy Chief Operating Officer Randy Bird:
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.Fossil fuels industries across the nation are pushing for state regulation of air and water quality issues while sending their minions to trash federal standards under the EPA. The EPA sets minimum standards, which states are required to enforce. The federal government only steps in when states consistently fail to uphold the minimum standard, opening up scofflaw companies to fines and other penalties.
"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."
2. Demand proof
Both projects promised state-of-the-art scrubbers would be used and air quality standards set by TCEQ would even be exceeded. (You can find the hype from White Stallion Energy here and Las Brisas here.) Despite these claims, both companies fought the EPA requirements in court and tried to side-step performance standards in Texas permit applications. Savvy local groups and environmental organizations fought back, ultimately winning injunctions against the Las Brisas and White Stallion permits.
3. Fuel source
These plants have been incorrectly labeled as coal-fired in media accounts. They planned to use petroleum coke from nearby refineries as their primary fuel, which is cheap and dirty. Las Brisas was going to use petcoke exclusively and White Station planned to use a blend of petcoke and pulverized coal. Petcoke releases large amounts of vanadium and nickel during the combustion process, along with higher levels of carbon dioxide than coal.
So why are refineries suddenly producing enough petcoke to supply large power plants? Back in the old days of conventional oil, the amount of coke produced in refining process was relatively small. The refineries in nearby Texas City handle "heavy oil." The tar sands glop produces petcoke in copious quantities. Remind me again where the Keystone XL pipeline is supposed to take all that glorious tar sands bitumen.
We are on the cusp of new dirty energy revolution in America. Importing large quantities of tar sands bitumen will create a very large petcoke waste stream. Thanks to the miracle of advanced media disinformation technology, petcoke can be sold to public as new, improved synthetic coal for power plants across the nation. Utility companies can swap out coal for cheaper petcoke, while coal companies can export domestic coal to more profitable foreign markets.
White Stallion Energy Center will use coal and petroleum coke, also called pet coke. Pet coke is a byproduct of the oil refining process, and is locally available. Because White Stallion is authorized to burn 100% of either fuel, or a blend, it has the flexibility to choose the lowest-cost fuel at any time to help keep electricity rates low.4. Competition from wind and gas
Everyone credits the gas boom with making the construction of new coal plants less attractive. Wind should get some credit as well.
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.The stories seem to miss one element of the equation. A new coal plant cannot be cost-competitive in Texas unless it ignores air quality standards, sucks up local water resources, and swaps petcoke for coal.
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.
5. The water-energy nexus
One major concern of local residents was water use by the White Stallion plant, particularly in light of persistent drought conditions in Texas. The original design called for an inexpensive cooling method that would consume copious amounts of water. The plant allocation would use up most of the "fixed" water allocation for the area, creating intense competition for "interruptible" water allocation in a rural community known for ranches and rice. ('Fixed' means guaranteed delivery under extreme drought conditions.) Water intake for the plant was going to be drawn from the Little Colorado River at Bay City, which would also have had a substantial impact on coastal estuaries fed by the river.
Objections raised by the Lower Colorado River Authority forced White Stallion Energy to pony up (sorry, pun intended) for a more expensive dry cooling system. The new allocation called for 978 billion gallons to be drawn from the river, about 85% less the original plan. Despite these improvements and hefty fees, there remained considerable local opposition because the new allocation still accounted for nearly a third of the area's fixed water supplies. It is unclear whether the permit was withdrawn or denied, but it disappeared off the LCRA tracking system in 2012.
6. Importance of grassroots opposition
Stopping these plants was a true grassroots effort. Local residents, environmental organizations, business owners, farmers, fishermen, and public health advocates banded together to challenge the air, water, and waste permits. Getting rid of dirty energy takes a village.
After years of grassroots challenges, White Stallion is abandoning plans to build the proposed coal-fired power plant in Matagorda County. When the project was first announced, local residents joined together to question the air pollution, water consumption, and accuracy of the developers’ promises. More and more Matagorda County residents joined together to oppose the plant, along with business owners, land owners, members of the medical community, and local elected officials. Sierra Club, Public Citizen, SEED Coalition, Environmental Integrity Project, and Environmental Defense Fund join the No Coal Coalition in celebrating the cancellation of the White Stallion Energy Center.A few final thoughts
Media coverage of the cancellation of the Las Brisas and White Stallion projects missed the real story. These projects were not really about coal, but rather how to use the growing petcoke waste stream from refineries handling "heavy oil" and tar sands bitumen. It is understandable why the oil industry does not want to call attention to the bumper crop of petcoke from refineries. Less understandable is why the media sells the false equivalence between coal and petcoke to an unsuspecting public. There are several possible explanations. Perhaps the journalists covering the story are too lazy or too stupid to understand the difference between petcoke and coal. Or perhaps they are deliberately trying to keep the petcoke waste stream out of the public eye.
Petcoke is an essential part of the tar sands equation. There are three major sources of carbon pollution association with the tar sands - extraction and processing, refinery emissions, and petcoke combustion. This unholy trinity deserves much more attention when the carbon footprint of the tar sands is considered. It is hard to "do the math" when there have been so few systematic studies of greenhouse gas emissions, particularly from the refinery and petcoke sides of the equation. Research on toxic emissions from refining tar sands bitumen and combustion of the resulting petcoke is also in its infancy.
We need to move Forward on Climate. Burning carbon is so neanderthal.