By this point, most of you will have been inundated with opinions and factoids about what President Obama's new "Clean Power Plan" will and won't do about climate change. Bottom Line: while it sets a precedent and an emissions floor for the largest sources of CO2, it does so in a way which turns out to be not so challenging for most states – including Kentucky deep in Coal County.
That's also true for Texas, where besides being Ground Zero for the fracking boom, we also have plenty of wind power and some solar. According to the EPA, the state must cut an annual average of 51 million tons of carbon to reach its target, a reduction of about 21 percent from 2012 emissions. We're well on our way to achieving most of that reduction with current or planned wind, gas, hydro, and solar. (In what might be a first concession that natural gas shouldn't be a long-term "bridge fuel," some analysts think tweaks performed by EPA prior to the Plan's release give more incentives to adopt real renewables earlier rather than leaning on gas in the interim.)
This is mostly good news. We want the wind and solar economies to grow. The trade-off is that, under Obama's Clean Power Plan, the rise of these technologies and their emissions reductions lets the obsolete East Texas coal plants off the hook because you don't need them to close to meet your CO2-cutting goals.
Five of those obsolete coal-fired power plants surround DFW's eastern side in a half circle (Big Brown, Martin Lake, Monticello, Limestone, and Welsh). They are, without a doubt, the worst examples of fossil fuel-generated pollution in Texas. They're huge emitters of Mercury, Particulate Matter (PM), Sulfur Dioxide (SOx), and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).
These five East Texas coal plants are projected by the state to still be releasing 150 tons a day of smog-forming NOx pollution in 2018. Because of wind direction and volume, that pollution has a very large impact on DFW air quality – probably more than any other single phenomenon. We need those coal plants to either modernize or close ASAP to help solve our chronic smog problem. But from the initial survey of the policy, the Clean Power Plan is not going to force that outcome.
While the Plan probably signals the end of any new coal plants any time soon, or at least none without CO2 solutions like sequestration or capture, the fate of existing coal plants, especially in a state like Texas, is more ambiguous. More likely, they'll continue to linger on, beneficiaries of friendly state-created policies designed to nullify the requirements of the Clean Air Act, like loosening their PM limits by magnitudes.
Now, you might think that a federal goal that's been mostly accomplished without doing anything new would be a no brainer in Austin, but there are increasingly fewer and fewer brains in Austin. Because the state's environmental agencies are now completely ideologically driven, common sense just isn't a factor anymore. Instead of asking "how can we best solve this problem?" the response is now to deny there's a problem at all and go about ginning up anti-federal hyperbole to better position yourself in the Republican Primary.
Consequently, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is seriously considering not turning in a required state plan of how to get the reductions needed by the deadline of 2030. If the state doesn't submit one of its own, then the EPA would write one for them. This has the business community in Texas a little nervous, since they have a lot more influence here than in DC. But citizens, which kind of anti-climate change plan would you rather have Texas abide by – one written by a state agency that denies climate change is happening and is doing everything it can to obstruct policies to prevent it, or one written by a federal agency that's actually acknowledging the obvious and doing something about it?
Regardless of whose plan does what by when, the East Texas coal plants look to be able to ride this federal policy out thanks to an almost two-decade homegrown drive to open up the state to renewables. If we want these coal plants to stop causing problems for us, we're probably going to have to find other leverage points.
One of these leverage points is demanding the state of Texas follow the law and require the coal plants install modern Selective Catalytic Reduction controls as part of the new DFW clean air plan it submitted to EPA this summer for approval. SCR could reduce smog pollution from these plants by 90%. So far, Texas has refused to even acknowledge the need to do so. EPA has requested the state change its mind – without success.
Consider the five East Texas coal plants the energy sector equivalent of the obsolete "wet" kilns in Midlothian that burned hazardous waste for 20 years. They're technological dinosaurs, on their last legs, but still churning out tons and tons of harmful air pollution as they plod their way to the bone yard. The Clean Power Plan insures they'll be the last of their kind, but it's not a silver bullet.
The latest chapter in a decades old mystery game of "Get a Clue" happens tomorrow morning, Monday, June 16th when representatives of the Sierra Club and Downwinders at Risk present their case against the current state anti-smog plan during the regional air planning meeting at the headquarters of the North Texas Council of Governments, 616 Six Flags Road in Arlington. Come find out who and/or what keeps the DFW area from ever meeting federal clean air standards year after year and what can be done about it. The meeting starts at 10 am. Citizen groups are expected to do their presentations in the 11 to 12 hour. Then we'll all have a debriefing lunch at the Subway's down the street hosted by State Representative Lon Burnam. Y'all come.
Today brings news of the first skirmish in this year's state Legislative session over using anti-smog funds collected in DFW and other EPA "non-attainment" areas to ease budget gaps in general revenue.
The Dallas Morning News has an account of local Dallas State Representative Helen Giddings teaming up with Houston Rep. Turner Sylvester during a House Appropriations Committeee meeting on Tuesday to make the case that the funds are desperately needed to help reduce air pollution in Texas' largest cities where unhealthy air is still the norm during "ozone season."
Everyone who gets their car inspected in North Texas pays an extra $6 that goes to the "Low-Income Repair and Replacement Assistance Program," (LIRAP). The money is supposed to be used to help low-income car owners upgrade their vehicles so they'll run cleaner. Because they can't afford to buy new vehicles as often, low income owners usually drive older cars. Older cars are dirtier cars. Fix them or upgrade them to newer cars and you reduce air pollution.
According to the folks that wear the green shades, the LIRAP fund will have approximately $77 million in unspent money at the end of August. Another $80 million is expected to be collected in the state's "non-attainment areas" over the next two years. That's a lot of car repair money. But as it turns out, state budget writers are proposing to only spend a little over $11 million in the next two years to be split up between Houston, DFW, Austin and San Antonio.
The size of the diversion has publicly angered elected officials in DFW and the other urban areas who are facing compliance with a new, stricter EPA smog standard by 2018 even as they annually fail to meet the old standard. In DFW and Houston LIRAP funding is traditionally used to build the clean air plans that must get approved by EPA. Without sufficient funds, local officials are telling the state that its next plan, due in 2015, might not get approved by EPA. You can imagine the disappointment in Austin of hearing that news.
Austin and San Antonio officials have actually threatened to pull out of the fee system all together unless they get more back of what their residents are putting in. That huffing and puffing paid off a bit Tuesday, as the Republican-led committee voted to approve an additional, but token, $1.4 million to those cities. Still, perhaps that lesson will not be lost on DFW officials, who have a long history of suffering silently as the state increasingly robs the region of its ability to control it's own air quality fate.
This was only the opening round of votes, and the House is more conservative than the Senate. But it's probably not a good sign that Rep. Giddings was the only one of at least five DFW-based members of the House Appropriations Committee quoted in News as leading the charge. Missing in Action was former Arlington City Council member and previous sometime-clean air supporter Diane Patrick, and oh yeah, the Chair of the Committee that hails from non-attainment Ellis County, Representative Jim Pitts. If the local North Texas clean air establishment can't get more help from its own players in the Lege, they're unlikely to see more money flowing their way.