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.4.,4,-1,..wkwe . 44to.awki v assalt io Texas lignite: stripping away illusions By Betty Anne Duke Austin Let me whisper one word to you: “Lignite.” It’s a kind of coal, and Texas has more of it just underground than any other state. Until lately, however, almost no one was aware of it, and even fewer cared. This was an oil and gas state; coal was something found in the depressed areas of Appalachia. But when natural gas prices tripled, then quintupled and octupled, the term “lignite” began to creep into more common use, especially in business circles. And in the last couple of years, feature articles have been popping ‘up in Texas newspapers touting this soft, brown coal as the foundation of the Lone Star state’s energy futurea money-maker of the first rank that would lead us to new heights of general prosperity if only we were smart enough to use it. You’d have thought someone had something to sell. Sure enough, , a few of the country’s largest corporations have bought up the mining rights to extensive lignite re serves, and their plans to strip-mine a goodly portion of Texas to extract the stuff are already well-advanced. Something like a million acres of land, stretching in two bands from the northeast corner of the state down to the Rio Grande, contain strip-minable lignite. While all this promises profits for the corporations involved, what does it mean to Texans and their environment? Since 1973, Texas coal has been looking better and better both to electric utilities and to the huge industrial users of energy as an economical alternative to increasingly expensive natural gas. Lignite, a soft, crumbly, porous type of coal that usually contains clearly separable pieces of plant matter, was once .referred to as “brown dirt,” and it has plenty of bad points: its heat content is low \(it averages 7,500 Btu’s per pound, giving it about three-fourths the heating value of the bituminous and sub-bituminous coal dirty to burn because of its high degree of sulfur and ash \(sulfur oxides and small ash particles are released into the air and large ash particles form a solid waste that dangerous and expensive to transport over long distances. Worst of all, the only currently feasible way to get at it in industrially usable amounts is to stripmine it. But what lignite lacks in quality, it makes up in quantity. Texas has got a lot of itnearly 12 billion tons of reserves within 200 feet of the surface and another 100-plus billion tons at depths ranging from 200 to 5,000 feetand extraction is increasing at an unprecedented rate. Two million tons were mined in 1973. Just four years later, that figure had increased to 17 million tons, and the Railroad Commission estimates the 1978 total at 23 million tons. In 1985, it is expected that 55 to 75 million tons will be mined for use in utility power plants alone. Increased industrial use of lignite could double that figureShell Oil, for example, has just recently requested a permit from the Railroad Commission to strip-mine 7,700 acres in Milam County between 1981 and 1985, with the expectation of taking out 19 million tons of lignite. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7