‘Clean’ Coal Sticks Its Snout Under San Antonio’s Tent

In the slow-motion planetary train wreck that is fossil-fuel-derived climate disruption — whether you call it global warming, global ‘weirding,’ or a worldwide conspiracy of the labcoat class — no one factor ranks higher in the blame game than coal. Once burned, the dark rock we level mountains for releases a range of poisonous substances, including brain-addling mercury, lung-damaging sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, airborne radioactive materials, and loads of heat-trapping greenhouse gases such as the normally benevolent carbon dioxide.

Coal is killing us in the here and now and destabilizing the planet’s natural processes to such a degree that our survival as a species has become not an infrequent subject of scientific papers. And no state gets more of its electricity from coal than Texas.

Yet last month, San Antonio-owned CPS Energy became the first utility in the nation to make the prescient business decision to close our oldest coal-fired power plant rather than invest in costly pollution-reduction equipment. The fact that the utility promised to install these scrubbers on the J.T. Deely power plant years ago to sidestep a fight with environmentalists over a newer (and cleaner) Spruce Two coal plant now up and running is something regional enviros are willing to forgive and forget. After all, the injection of an expected half-billion in new equipment now would virtually guarantee the plant would be run until the bolts burst, if possible. Good luck getting rate hikes for that.

The Deely announcement was followed by a pledge from Mayor Julián Castro to turn San Antonio into the nation’s epicenter of clean-energy development. Those twin messages were echoing last week when CPS announced it is seeking up to 400 megawatts of solar power. The game here has clearly shifted.

And yet Big Coal is still waging war in the state.

Several new coal plants are lurching toward realization. While none would be as bad as ’70s-era “Dirty” Deely, an expanded Coleto Creek Power Station a couple hours downriver could soon start spewing several hundred tons of sulfur dioxide per year. Beyond that, Las Brisas, a proposed petroleum coke power plant, would emit more than 60 pounds of mercury annually. And White Stallion in Matagorda County wouldn’t be doing any favors for the already heavily polluted Houston area, a prime suspect in the smog that so often envelopes San Antonio.

Even as we celebrate the decision to close Deely by 2018, the EPA’s transport rule announced last week targeting coal plants in Texas and 27 other states suggests there wasn’t much of a choice to be made. The plant blamed for 14 premature deaths, 21 heart attacks, and 280 asthma attacks every year, according to a report commissioned by the nonprofit advocacy group Clean Air Task Force, simply has to go. Of course, every year that ticks by adds to the death toll — both in terms of heart attacks as well as the gathering storm that is climate disruption, forecasts for which suggest this year’s punishing drought and record-breaking temps are just a foretaste.

As our city struggles to stay in compliance with existing federal rules on smog — having made it this far into 2011 only by “our teeth, and our nails,” according to Peter Bella, natural resource director for the 12-county Alamo Area Council of Governments — new coal plants could make all our ride-sharing, efficiency measures, and pollution cuts at area cement plants for naught. And while CPS Energy is digging deep into renewables, they also hope to make up some of those lost Deely megawatts with … another coal plant.

Seattle-based Summit Power’s Texas Clean Energy Project is a new venture into the wilds of “clean” coal. Run right, the air emissions of the coal gasification plant planned for the Odessa area would be minimal, most of the carbon dioxide would be collected and injected in the West Texas oil patch. The group even plans to sell a nitrogen-rich urea byproduct — consider it new-generation coal pee — into the fertilizer market, and build its own desalination plant for its water needs. It is such a different beast that none other than Tom “Smitty” Smith, director for typically coal-adverse Public Citizen’s Texas office, admits his impression is still “pretty schizophrenic.” (“It’s far, far cleaner than any other coal plant in the country,” Smith says. “But it’s still a coal plant.”) Whatever carbon magic can be worked, the ravages of mountaintop-removal coal mining and stream-smothering toxic slurries must still be addressed. And if the CO2 doesn’t stay in the ground, if it leads to earthquakes such as one researcher suggests it will, than it still does nothing to arrest our sprint toward six-degrees (or more) of warming this century.

And yet leaking carbon dioxide doesn’t disturb Texans nearly as much as wasted water. If anything threatens to derail this little coal rush, it’s the EPA from above and water from below. Already, the Lower Colorado River Authority stalled a decision on White Stallion’s application, requesting more information and time to consider it. And Tenaska, another supposedly “clean” coal West Texas venture, is being fought at every turn in its hunt for water. With June entering the record books as Texas’ hottest yet, neighboring New Mexico just suffered through their driest to date. With the link between CO2 and such withering conditions secure, it’s past time the energy behind such water fights carried over into the realm of the greenhouse.