StateImpact, in collaboration with NPR and KUT Austin

Coal Powers Texas But At What Cost

About a third of our power is generated by burning coal, according to the state. That generates tons of air pollution. And that's why projects for even more or bigger coal-burning power plants can raise a lot of opposition. Our StateImpact Texas reporter, Dave Fehling, has been to one place in Texas where just such a battle took place.

Goliad"It’s a great community. You’re out in the country."

The tiny town of Goliad in south Texas is known for one of the first battles in the Texas Revolution. More recently, there was another battle of sorts here...over power...electrical power, and the big coal-burning power plant a bit east of here. It wanted to expand, burn more coal to make more power.

Bruce Ure lives in the area.

"It’s a lot cleaner than what you’d might think and quite frankly, there’s not a lot of ruckus in the community over it."

"Coleto Creek 2 will be a 600 megawatt coal fired..."

In an on-line video, the plant’s owners said the new unit would be one of the cleanest burning in the nation.

"We’re investing in the most advanced technology to reduce emissions..."

Richard Gill
Richard Gill

But not everyone here bought it.

"You sure picked a beautiful day."

Richard Gill lives less than two miles from the Coleto Creek plant near Goliad. His home is surrounded by meadows and groves of live oaks.

"You know, when I moved here in 2000 I wasn’t concerned with it at all."

But that changed.

Gill works in emergency medical care and after reading up on it became convinced that the sulphur dioxide, mercury and other pollution from burning coal was indeed a health a concern. Even if on a sunny day, the plant’s smokestack doesn’t look like it’s emitting a thing.

"That’s exactly it, you don’t see the problem."

So he and some others formed a group, went to hearings held by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and tried to convince the TCEQ to deny the plant a permit to expand. It didn’t work.

Jennifer Powis
Jennifer Powis

"Basically, they got their permit."

So the resident’s group lost, right?

"Thus far, they’ve won."

Jennifer Powis is with the Sierra Club.

"Coleto Creek’s been fully permitted meaning they could begin construction for more than a year and nobody’s breaking ground."

Powis is involved in challenging coal-burning projects all over Texas. Seldom does the state ever deny permits. But she says fewer projects are actually going ahead with construction.

It’s been happening nationwide as coal becomes less popular for environmental reasons and with natural gas prices staying low, coal’s lost some of its competitive edge.

Still, says Powis:

"Texas leads the nation in proposed coal plants and is third in the nation for megawatt hours produced from coal."

While the owners of some of the biggest coal projects in Texas wouldn’t grant us interviews, they’ve said in past statements that coal remains one of the cheapest ways to make electricity, even with new scrubbers costing hundreds of millions of dollars per plant.

The scrubbers, they say, remove some 95-percent of sulphur dioxide though only about 20-percent of mercury pollution.

Coleto CreekCritics of coal say that’s far from good enough.

Ryan Rittenhouse is with Greenpeace.

"And if they do take out 95 percent of the sulphur, remember, these plants are putting out an enormous amount. We’re talking about thousands of tons of this stuff every year."

That definitely worries some people in Goliad, but not everyone.

"Some people see it a little differently. It’s like one of those not in my backyard things. But I don’t think it’s bad for our community."

For StateImpact Texas, I’m Dave Fehling.

Bio photo of Dave Fehling

Dave Fehling

Energy & Environment Reporter for StateImpact

Dave Fehling is KUHF's Energy and Environment Reporter. His reporting is a part of StateImpact, a collaboration with KUT in Austin and NPR...