The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), an environmental advocacy group, recently announced that it will not oppose the construction of a new coal plant planned for Sweetwater, Texas . At first glance this is surprising because coal is one of the largest targets of many environmental organizations. Coal has several negative environmental impacts, including surface and mountain-top removal mining, water withdrawals for cooling, contamination from mine tailings, and emissions of greenhouse gasses, chemicals that form acid rain, particulates that contribute to lung problems, smog-forming chemicals, and health-hazards such as mercury and arsenic.
The reason EDF is not opposing the coal plant is that Tenaska, the company building the plant, has agreed to capture 85% or more of the carbon dioxide produced by the plant . At 785 megawatts gross capacity, this plant would be the first utility-scale carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) project in the world. In addition, Tenaska has agreed to employ dry cooling technology instead of traditional wet cooling, reducing the water consumption by 90% in comparison to a traditional coal plant of the same size.
The Trailblazer Energy Center, as the plant is called, is reported to be a $3.5 billion project . The 785 megawatt gross capacity is reduced by these two technologies to 600 megawatts, a 25% reduction in capacity. Tenaska also reports that these technologies increase the project cost by 40% . Tenaska plans to make some revenue from sales of carbon dioxide to the oil industry for use in enhanced oil recovery, but still says that the project requires carbon legislation in order to go forward. If carbon legislation is not passed, Tenaska will reevaluate the project.
EDF’s decision to not oppose this project is interesting because it is an example of an environmental group being pragmatic towards a project, even though it will still incur significant environmental damage due to mining and emissions other than greenhouse gases. On the other hand, Tenaska is counting on carbon legislation to give the project providing a competitive advantage in a carbon-constrained environment. Both sides appear to be acknowledging political and economic realities.