In a bizarre turn of the revolving door, a power company with a right-wing pedigree has hired former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller to promote its bid to build a coal-gasification plant in Texas. Last January, Summit Power Group Inc.-headed by a lion of the Christian right best known for opposing environmental regulation-started paying Miller to promote “clean” coal. In 2006 then-Mayor Miller led the charge against TXU Corp.’s plans to build 11 new dirty-coal plants in Texas. The role reversal is a story that Miller herself might have relished in her former life as a muckraking reporter.
Miller’s new boss at Summit Power is an unlikely prophet of “clean coal.” Summit Chairman Donald Paul Hodel did stints as President Ronald Reagan’s energy secretary and interior secretary. He is perhaps best known for opposing a ban on aerosol chlorofluorocarbons to protect the Earth’s ozone layer. At the time, the Washington Post reported that Hodel urged people to don hats, sunscreen and dark glasses instead. Despite Hodel’s insistence that he never said any such thing, the apocryphal quote has dogged him for decades.
Now Hodel seeks to build a coal-gasification plant that would remove half of the global-warming emissions it produces. Oddly, the Arizona-based Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change lists Hodel as a science adviser. The center, a think tank, touts the planetary advantages of warmer climates, and questions alleged links between CO2 emissions and global warming. It has received funding from oil giant Exxon Mobil Corp. Hodel has been president of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family and Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition. His wife, Barbara, sits on the board of Virginia-based Patrick Henry College, which caters to home-schooled evangelicals (and is unrivaled at placing interns in the current White House). Another member of Patrick Henry’s board is Texas Christian-right godfather James Leininger, who has spent millions of dollars in Austin promoting school vouchers, protecting fetuses, and battling with plaintiff attorneys over liability laws.
By contrast, Miller’s spouse, Steve Wolens, is a former state lawmaker and plaintiffs’ attorney who is often mentioned as a Democratic candidate for statewide office. During his last legislative session in 2003, this liberal Democrat scored a lowly 19 percent on key conservative votes tabulated by the Dallas-based Heritage Alliance. His wife seemed to cement her liberal bona fides in 2006, when she co-founded the Texas Clean Air Cities Coalition. Back then, Miller warned communities surrounding the proposed coal plants that TXU was “purposely misleading the public in order to build old-technology coal plants the cheapest way possible.” When investment firms KKR & Co. and TPG Capital (formerly Texas Pacific Group) successfully sought to take over TXU in early 2007, some environmental groups endorsed the buyers’ pledge to cancel all but three of the proposed plants. Not so Miller, who stood her ground, pointing out that just two of the surviving plants would spew more mercury emissions than all of the canceled ones put together. “Environmental Defense blessed those two stacks when they don’t have the authority to do that,” she said at the time. (Environmental Defense Fund’s Texas director, Jim Marston, chairs the nonprofit board that publishes the Observer.)
A year after Miller lambasted TXU’s outdated technology and told the company that “carbon dioxide is a huge, huge issue for us,” Summit hired the ex-mayor to promote a proposed coal-gasification plant that will sequester at most 60 percent of its CO2 emissions. Asked about coal-gasification technologies that target 90 percent of CO2 emissions, Miller told the Observer, “You can’t capture more than 60 percent and have it be [economically] viable.”
A Florida-based consulting engineer who has worked for power companies and environmentalists concurred. While technology exists to remove 90 percent of a plant’s CO2, said Richard Furman, 60 percent is “becoming the consensus of what is cost effective.” Thereafter, the cost of removing CO2 escalates to the point that you would be better off spending the additional money on plants with no CO2 controls, Furman said. Some of Miller’s allies in the TXU fight feel betrayed. “No project should move forward right now that adds fuel to the global-warming fire,” said Karen Hadden, who heads the Austin-based Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition. Hadden advocates solar and wind power as more cost-effective alternatives.
“The best way to fight dirty coal plants is to build clean ones,” Miller said. She signed on as Summit’s Texas projects director because the company was willing to privately finance a coal-gasification plant with carbon sequestration. Once that is demonstrated, Miller said, the next challenge will be achieving higher rates of CO2 sequestration. Asked why a man who appears to question the link between CO2 and global warming would build a CO2-sequestering plant, Miller said Hodel “is a true believer in the United States not being dependent on other countries for energy.” Asked if she ever discusses fetuses with the former Christian Coalition president, Miller said, “We talk about coal.”
In a written statement to the Observer, Hodel acknowledged opposing the 1980s ban on chlorfluorocarbons based on cost-benefit analyses that “I thought were totally speculative.” He said the Washington Post relied on anonymous sources to falsely attribute the apocryphal sunscreen quote to him. Although he said he was unaware that the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change claims him as a science adviser, Hodel said the group does “interesting work” on “some of the benefits of having increased CO2 in the atmosphere.” He added, “Coal gasification is a vastly cleaner use of coal than burning it, whether you capture the carbon or not. Whether global warming is caused by human activity is not the issue. What matters is that an increasing number of very influential people around the globe believe this to be a fact.”
Summit, based in Poulsbo, Washington, announced its coal-gasification plans at a crucial time. Texas Gov. Rick Perry put up $21 million in cash and $240 million in tax credits last year to lure to Texas an experimental coal-gasification plant that would screen out toxic emissions and global-warming gases. The U.S. Department of Energy pledged to finance most of the $2 billion plant, with additional funding from the so-called FutureGen Alliance of coal and power companies (including TXU successor Luminant Energy Co.). Texas promoted two potential DOE sites: one between Waco and Lufkin, and the other outside Odessa. Then DOE scrapped these plans early this year, arguing that it is more efficient to fund carbon-dioxide removal at coal-gasification plants being pursued by private companies across the country.
When Summit subsequently announced its intent to build a coal-gasification plant in Texas, Midland-Odessa officials promoted their area as an ideal site. Part of their pitch is that the carbon dioxide stripped from the coal can be sold to local energy companies, which use CO2 gas to force more oil and gas out of wells. Summit said its gasification plant will generate five times more energy than the one DOE planned to build. It also will do a poorer job of controlling CO2 (removing 50 to 60 percent of the gas, compared with DOE’s target of 90 percent). Summit builds power plants but does not operate them. Miller declined to identify the client behind this project, which she said would open in 2013 at the earliest.
One Summit co-founder already boasts West Texas business connections. Earl Gjelde-a top Hodel aide in the Reagan years-sat on the board of Didax Inc. during the 1990s. Former CIA technology chief William Bowers founded this evangelical Internet company in Virginia in 1993. After dotcoms bombed, Texas oil fortunes invested in the remains. The Texans remade the company in their own image in 2002. They sold its core Internet assets to evangelical radio company Salem Communications Corp. (where Hodel is a director), transplanted the company to Midland, and renamed it Amen Properties Inc. Amen invests in commercial properties and energy wells, and founded electricity retailer W Power & Light (see, “Low Wattage Regulators,” page 4). Despite this radical makeover, Amen retained Didax’s evangelical bylaws, which require employees and directors to believe in such things as Jesus’ virgin birth and the Bible as God’s infallible revelation.
Now Earl Gjelde and Donald Hodel are paying Laura Miller to promote a coal-gasification plant. While it would mark a huge improvement over Texas’ existing dirty-coal plants, the proposed plant falls short of the best possible technology to counter global warming. Looks like those hats, shades, and sunscreen could come in handy after all.
Award-winning Observer columnist Andrew Wheat is research director for Texans for Public Justice.