Earlier today, I attended part of the 6th annual Clean Carbon Policy Summit at the Driskill Hotel in downtown Austin. It’s an annual industry-funded event to promote the notion that coal, the dirtiest of fuels, can be made “clean” through technology, innovation… and massive government subsidies (natch!).
As in previous years, Texas was touted as an important proving ground for the coal bidness. In particular, speakers pointed to the state’s large capacity for storing carbon underground in geological formations as well as a handful of “clean coal” power plants in development. Like most insider-y conferences, there was a lot of self-congratulation but not much critical thinking.
This year the sponsors – coal-mining corporation Peabody; mega-utility AEP; astroturf organization American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity; North American Coal Corporation; power-generator NRG; coal-plant developer Tenaska; and others – scored a big “get” for their keynote address, Rick Perry.
The governor, of course, is a big supporter of Big Coal.
In what has to be one of his most nakedly corrupt decisions, Perry issued an executive order in October 2005 expediting the permitting of coal-fired power plants in Texas. Coal-plant developers have never had a problem getting a permit through the state’s weak regulatory process but coal-crazy Dallas-based utility TXU had run into a little problem: a groundswell of grassroots opposition to their plans to build 11 new coal plants. No problem. Perry used the power of his office to speed things up a little. Shortly thereafter, TXU money started rolling into Perry’s campaign coffers.
Fast-forward three years. Although TXU was beaten back, the Texas coal rush is stronger than ever, with a total of 26 plants either operating, permitted, or proposed. Perry’s support for coal is evidently as strong as ever too. Today at a luncheon sponsored by AEP (a utility company that’s given the governor’s campaign almost $90,000 since 2002), he praised Texas energy policy as “both pragmatic and visionary” and blasted carbon regulation as “short-sighted” and “dangerous.” Perry accused the EPA, a familiar campaign bogeyman, of having an “activist mindset… more suited to an on-campus rally at one of those California campuses.”
As usual, Perry was light on the policy details. He did, however, specifically praise legislation passed last session that offers up to $300 million in subsidies to three new “clean coal” projects that capture and sequester at least 70 percent of their carbon.
Perry, like many coal boosters, never did define “clean coal.” Indeed, as British journalist George Monbiot has written, “Clean coal’s definition changes according to whom the industry is lobbying.”
Is coal “clean” if half the carbon is captured and used to extract more oil but still emits huge quantities of smog-forming gasses and mercury? Is coal “clean” if the pollution coming out of the stacks is significantly reduced but the ravages of mountaintop removal goes on? Is the coal industry suddenly “clean” if only a handful of carbon-capture projects are underway, with no guarantee of success?
Let’s look at Texas, which is allegedly ground-zero for the clean(er?)-coal effort. Of the 26 coal plants operating or in the pipeline in Texas, only two could possibly be considered “clean coal” – Summit Power’s 400-megawatt project near Odessa and Tenaska Energy’s 600-megwatt Trailblazer power plant near Abilene. Both plants are proposing to capture most of their carbon and sell it for enhanced oil recovery in West Texas oil-fields.
The Summit project is propped up by massive state and federal subsidies – perhaps close to $1 billion when all is said and done. Even with those subsidies, it’s probably still only viable because of the ready market in the Permian Basin for carbon dioxide and because the plant will use some of its power to produce fertilizer. How many coal plants can the declining Permian Basin support? And for how long? How many billions in subsidies are required to goose this industry before it can function on its own?
It remains to be seen when, or even if, any of these projects will get off the ground. And even if they do, there are still far more heavily-polluting conventional coal plants being built, with the usual suite of mercury, soot, sulfur, carbon dioxide, and ozone-forming gasses.
In reality, without federal regulation of greenhouse gasses, “clean coal” is mostly an industry talking point. Jay Kipper, with UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology, acknowledged as much during a panel discussion today. “Really what’s going to kickstart all this… is when a price for carbon is set,” he said. No regulation, no clean coal. Or very little of it anyway.
Of course, Perry, and Texas Republicans in general, are adamantly opposed to even a market-friendly system of greenhouse gas regulation like cap-and-trade. Today, Perry once again referred to cap-and-trade as a “massive blow to the economy of this state.”
See you next year at the 7th annual Clean Carbon Policy Summit… when I’m sure we’ll hear how clean coal is juuuuuust around the corner.