Political Intelligence

Coal Day in Hell


The Coal Front

Despite reports to the contrary, Big Coal is alive and well in Texas. The coal-burning power plant that ranchers Robert and Jo Cervenka have been fighting for four years (see, “The Coal War,” November 4, 2005) near their homestead in the little town of Riesel is becoming a reality. Though they don’t yet have an air permit, plant owners Dynegy Inc. and LS Power LLC have deployed workers and equipment to begin prepping the site for the planned 800-megawatt Sandy Creek Energy Station. About 50 miles away, near Franklin in Robertson County, Dallas-based TXU, now owned by private company Energy Future Holdings Corp., is erecting a 15-story smokestack and building boiler frames for its massive, 1,600-megawatt Oak Grove power station.

“Everybody thinks since TXU went away with those eight, that it’s all over, but no, it isn’t,” says Jo Cervenka of TXU’s withdrawal of eight of 11 proposed coal-fired plants in February as part of a record $45 billion leveraged buyout by two private equity firms.

In all, 10 coal-fired power units are in various stages of being permitted or constructed around the state. Environmentalists and community groups are challenging most of the 10 in court or at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The Sandy Creek and Oak Grove plants are the closest to being built. The power companies are building at their own risk because a court could reject the air permits.

Together, the 10 proposed Texas plants would emit 56 million tons of carbon dioxide, the main global-warming gas, every year, according to estimates by the citizen group, SEED Coalition. That’s the equivalent of putting almost 11 million new cars on the road and what could be a fatal blow in efforts to rein in global warming. Coal-burning power plants are also major sources of a grab bag of pollutants, including smog-forming nitrogen oxides, the dangerous toxic metal mercury, and microscopic particulate matter, or soot, which scientists are increasingly linking to asthma, chronic bronchitis, and premature death.

Texas activists offer renewable power, conservation, and energy efficiency as alternatives to coal. “You eventually work your way around to being all about efficiency,” said Paul Rolke, a rancher opposed to the Oak Grove plant and founder of the grassroots organization Robertson County: Our Land, Our Lives. “It’s clean, it doesn’t pollute the air, it doesn’t kill anybody, it doesn’t contribute to global warming.”

Jo Cervenka still hopes the Sandy Creek plant can be scuttled. If not? “At our age, what are we going do?” she says. “I don’t know. That farm is paid for; it’s ours. It’s our home.”

Barrels of oil fall on a middle class dragged down by the housing market

Hell of a Highway

Interstate 35 is not only one of the nation’s busiest freeways, it’s also the Appian Way of wickedness, lined with strip clubs, adult bookstores, the occasional ExxonMobil station, truck stops crammed with northbound NAFTA freight, and of course, those pernicious ads for laser vasectomy reversal.

Should this damned highway be saved, or exorcised? That depends on whether you believe God’s grace is mightier than Phyllis Schlafly.

Cindy Jacobs says she received her answer directly from God. Jacobs is a suburban Dallas minister whose Web site describes her as a “respected prophet who travels the world ministering not only to crowds of people but to heads of nations.” Two years ago, she claims to have received a prophecy from the Almighty to turn Interstate 35 into a “highway of holiness.”

“God just shows me things about the future,” she said recently by phone. “It just comes to me. It sounds really weird, doesn’t it? But it happens.” She began to think that perhaps I-35 was the holy highway referred to in the Book of Isaiah 35:8. (“And a Highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called, The way of holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it.”)

Jacobs shared her prophecy with Pastor Steve Hill of Dallas’ Heartland World Ministries Church. They recruited other churches for a proselytizing effort centered on I-35. They call it the “Light the Highway” movement (lightthehighway.org).

In late October, the coalition launched “35 days of highway holiness,” a series of 17 prayer rallies, beginning in Laredo and heading north along the interstate to its terminus in Duluth, Minnesota. Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network recently aired a breathless profile of the effort.

When the highway illuminators found a particularly sinful spot, an abortion clinic, a gay bar, a strip club, they swarmed into “purity siege” mode, assaulting the business and its patrons with powerful bursts of prayer.

“You drive down any interstate, there will be signs for the porn shop,” said Hill. “The devil will display his goods and invite people to pull in. I just believe the church needs to be a little bit more aggressive sharing the greatest news on the planet Earth. That’s what I hope will come out of this.”

Enter a different set of believers with a different agenda. To the anti-NAFTA superhighway crowd, I-35 could never be considered holy. It is evil incarnate with exit ramps.

Conservative groups such as Schlafly’s Eagle Forum suspect I-35 is part of a sinister plan to create a NAFTA superhighway, part of a “monster of a project that will expand I-35 and add dedicated truck lanes and rails for both passenger and freight,” reads a recent message from GrassTops USA-a right-wing “values” group that once called for a boycott of the movie Bad Santa because of its Christmas-themed vulgarity.

The conservative Web site WorldNetDaily.com even wrote over the summer that “increasing international trade truck traffic on Interstate 35 through Minnesota raises concerns that NAFTA Superhighway traffic contributed to last week’s collapse of the freeway bridge in Minneapolis.”

How can you square such contradictory views of the same road? Is it holy or evil?

“They’re looking at the natural commerce; I’m looking at the spiritual commerce,” Hill said. “You speak commercial, I speak spiritual.”

Safe at Home?

The real estate bubble never fully enveloped Texas. Even the state’s priciest cities, such as Austin and Houston, didn’t experience the huge leaps in home values seen in Florida and California. As housing markets collapse across the country, it turns out that wasn’t such a bad deal. Missing out on the boom has helped the state avoid the real estate bust. That likely won’t last. A recent report commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Mayors predicts that continued calamity in the housing market may soon become a drag on Texas’ economy.

Risky subprime, adjustable-rate mortgages have spurred a rash of foreclosures nationwide. Those loans-given to buyers with bad credit-draw in homeowners with low teaser interest rates that skyrocket two or three years into the mortgage. When that happens, many homeowners can’t make the higher payments, and the only way out is to sell the house. If the home’s value has dropped and selling it won’t pay off the mortgage, foreclosure follows. Texas has its fair share of subprime loans-in fact, McAllen has a higher percentage of subprimes than any city in the country. What’s saved the state so far is that housing prices have remained high.

Because the real estate boom passed over many Texas markets and houses never became hugely overvalued, home prices have either remained stable or even risen. In Austin, for instance, home values increased by 9.6 percent in the past year, according to federal estimates. Meanwhile, home prices nationwide fell in the third quarter of 2007, the first decline in real estate value in 13 years. The Houston and Dallas markets have also bucked the national trend. In many Texas markets, homeowners still can escape a risky mortgage by selling their house.

The Conference of Mayors commissioned a study of what a continued housing market collapse would mean for the nation’s cities. The report, prepared by economic forecasting firm Global Insight and released in late November, predicts that home values will fall by $519 billion nationwide in 2008. That decline will deflate the economies of most of the nation’s 361 largest metro areas, according to the firm’s economic models.

In Texas, the report foresees that housing troubles will cause a $4 billion drop in Dallas’ “gross metropolitan product,” the third-largest decline in the nation. That eye-catching dollar figure generated some alarmed headlines in Dallas. But it’s hardly the worst news for Texas. Because Dallas is expanding so rapidly, the $4 billion drop represents just a 0.8 percent decline in the city’s economic growth. In fact, the report predicts similar or greater slowdowns for other Texas cities, including Laredo (0.9 percent loss), Odessa (1.2 percent), and Midland (0.7 percent)-all cities where local economies are currently booming. Abilene (0.7 percent), Houston (0.7), Killeen (0.8), and Longview (0.7) will also see drops, according to the report.

Ironically, the study predicts that the only market immune from the housing woes will be the area with the most subprime loans-the McAllen-Edinburg-Mission area. A thriving economy and stable housing prices may yet insulate the Valley economy.