Thursday, December 28, 2006
In Spite of Showdown in Austin
"Railroad" is Still On a Fast Track
An early Xmas present for TXU?
Once more the technical debate over the benefits of IGCC technology vs. conventional coal-based power generation finds itself making headline news in a major state capital.
This time it’s in Austin, where the news last week must have been like an early Xmas present for Texas Utilities executives and project planners.
TXU has seven air permit applications under review by the Administrative Law Judges as they prepare to make their recommendations to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).
On Dec. 14 the Judges issued an initial ruling that these applications are still subject to the fast-track review process ordered in last fall by Gov. Perry.
This came in spite of heavy public objection by a collection of environmental and business groups, as well as the mayors of Dallas and Houston, who oppose the TXU plan to build 11 new coal-fired power plants in central Texas.
In the most recent session, the Judges also moved to consolidate the hearings for six of the TXU permits. This will tend to further streamline the debate that opponents already complain is being rushed.
Coal power is needed
Not that there isn’t widespread agreement that Texas needs to add generating capacity, and to diversify its power generation methods and energy sources. This follows a period of over-building gas-fired combined cycle plants, which resulted in a disproportionate dependence on natural gas in the state.
While some of the greener groups oppose coal outright, those who recognize the need for new coal-based generation want the proposed plants to be as clean as possible.
Enter IGCC technology, and the debate over whether or not it is the right answer for such an ambitious program.
Opponents to TXU's proposals argue that they should not be given fast-track approval to build “obsolete dirty coal plants” and should, instead be required to take more time to consider the use cleaner, albeit more costly IGCC technology.
In coming out in force to the hearings, they were hoping for a moratorium in the permitting of the conventional coal plants (in all there are 16 currently up for approval across the state), and are hoping to swing the Judges opinion as they consider the arguments pro and con.
One bright spot for the opposition was that the Judges did accept the Coalition of Cities, which includes Dallas and Houston, as well as other groups, as a “parties to the case”. This formality will allow opposition spokespeople and expert witnesses to be admitted and heard at the hearings.
”This is clearly a railroad (by the governor’s office), and is simply getting people more angry” one outspoken critic of the fast-track process told me.
At this point, TXU still has air permit requests for all 11 of the proposed plants pending.
Besides the seven being reviewed by the Judges, two others, Sandow and Oakdale Unit 5 are up before a federal court – where intervenors have filed suit charging that the TCEQ process violates the U.S. Clean Air Act. They argue that that IGCC should be considered as BACT for new coal-based power generation.
Two other applications, for Oak Grove 1 and 2 near Waco, already have negative findings pending before the TCEQ, which, by the way, is not bound by the Administrative Law Judges’ recommendations.
(One late report indicated that these have been officially put on hold after a Waco community group – including business leaders - filed suit. They argued that PC plants are not the cleanest technology available, and they apparently plan to file similar suits against all of TXU's plants.)
Since the Governor's executive order requires the Commission to consider the applications at “its earliest possible opportunity”, these two could very well be decided at the next TCEQ meeting scheduled for Jan. 10.
As for the seven still before the Judges, and possibly being greased for the fast-track process, there is a six-month clock ticking for each of them (from the time that it was referred for review) so they will soon have their “day in court”.
Calling for ‘timeout’ to get it right
Opponents await Gov. Perry's replacement appointment to the three-member TCEQ, and are looking to the incoming state legislature to address the issue.
There are those who are holding out hope for “showdown” between the legislature and the governor’s office that will force a slowing of the TCEQ permitting process, and stop the “stampede” caused by the fast-tracking executive order.
Opponents are calling for a timeout. A group of medical doctors is leading the outcry with questions about the potential danger imposed by coal plants on public health. Although some of the new plants are intended to replace some old ones, the opposition argues that there will be a net increase in the emission of pollutants.
While acknowledging the higher initial cost of IGCC technology, they maintain that the ultimate costs to the public will be much greater due to the impact of conventional coal plants on the already sub-standard air quality in the region.
They say that the state will not have a second chance to consider the consequences. Taking a timeout is the only way to make sure Texas gets this right.
For more up-to-date news on TXU situation in Austin see: http://www.austinchronicle.com/gyrobase/Issue/story?oid=oid%3A432112
Posted by Harry Jaeger at 4:43 PM