Environmental Defense Fund decides not to oppose new coal plant

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 [1].  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 [2].  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 [3].  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% [4].  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.

[1] http://www.austinpost.org/content/sweetwater-coal-plant-gets-thumbs-up-enviros

[2] http://www.edf.org/pressrelease.cfm?contentID=11010

[3] http://www.tenaskatrailblazer.com/

[4] http://www.gosanangelo.com/news/2009/mar/25/sweetwater-coal-plant-ready-for-cap-and-trade/

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Environmental Defense Fund decides not to oppose new coal plant

  1. theakvoice

    I find it very encouraging that the EDF has decided to support this project. Perhaps this is because climatologists (if not environmentalists) recognize that CCS is an essential tool in mitigating global warming. The IPCC suggested that CCS could provide 15-55% of cumulative GHG emissions reductions by 2100 [1]. Clearly the potential impact of this technology in the short- to medium- term is enormous.

    Other high profile environmental groups should follow their lead. Greenpeace, an environmental advocacy group, has condemned carbon capture as a “corporate boondoggle” [2]. Other groups, such as the Sierra Club, are slightly less skeptical, stating simply that CCS technology is “insufficient for addressing the urgent need to reduce global warming pollution”.

    Two issues are sometimes overlooked in the CCS debate. The first, which the author of this post addressed, is that other environmental externalities (which CCS does not address) result from the production of coal power. Greenhouse gases and all other harmful pollutants should be taxed. Revenue collected would be used to repair damage caused by pollution. Government’s roll should be to regulate the problem through taxation and allow the market to find the best solution–not handpick energy winners and losers as some environmental groups would like.

    This brings up the second overlooked issue. Carbon capture technology can be applied to a wide range of carbon dioxide sources, including natural gas power plants, cement plants, petroleum refineries, and steel mills. Indeed, carbon dioxide point sources account for some 50% of all emissions worldwide [1]. Switching from coal to gas power can provide significant carbon dioxide reductions in the short term–but in the long-term, gas plants still spew out too much carbon to keep the planet cool. Furthermore, there is no sign of a low-carbon substitute for concrete or steel in the near future.

    The debate about coal should focus on taxing the various environmental externalities, rather than simply not burning the stuff–which in all likelihood is completely unpractical. The debate about CCS should focus on its cost relative to other means of reducing GHG emissions–although ultimately, this is for the market to decide.

    [1] Abanades, Juan. IPCC Special Report on Carbon Capture and Sequestration – Technical Summary. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: Working Group III. 2005.

    [2] Greenpeace. Statement on Carbon Capture. http://www.greenpeace.org/raw/content/international/press/reports/statement-on-carbon-capture-an.pdf

    • erinbb

      This news actually doesn’t surprise me at all. Different environmental organizations have taken a wide range of positions, and
      EDF has supported the development of CCS technologies for years. They also dropped opposition to a new NRG coal plant in Texas in 2008 after negotiating a long list of concessions including 50% carbon capture, investments in geological storage, reduced water consumption, and taking steps at the plant and in the company’s vehicle fleet to reduce SOx, NOx, and mercury emissions.

      EDF’s logic is that “the transition away from coal and other fossil-based fuels will take time.” Shutting down all existing fossil fuel plants and preventing all future construction is an unrealistic goal; instead, the organization is focused on reducing the environmental and climate change impact of the plants we do and will have. While Jim Marston’s claim that “The era of building traditional coal plants without carbon capture and storage is over” may be hyperbolic, the agreement with Taska demonstrates to other companies that the organization is willing to work with companies that install technologies to reduce the environmental impact of their plants, such as CCS and dry cooling. While Tenaska may be reaping a PR benefit from the attention right now, the threat of EDF legal action is significant – the agreement with NRG shows just how highly these companies price legal opposition (and indefinite delay).

      One part of this story that really stands out for me is how explicit the Tenaska leadership is about the challenge of planning for future development while the climate/ carbon legislation remains uncertain. They admit that the economics of the plant will not work without such legislation, even with the additional income of selling CO2 to the extraction industry. However, the Austin Post story highlights the fact that much of the additional cost at the plant is associated with the decision to use dry cooling. It makes me wonder whether, if there is no carbon tax or cap-and-trade system in place within the next few years, whether the company would just drop the CCS system, switch to wet cooling, or both. It also makes me think that increasing the cost of water for generation to (more closely) reflect full-cost is another lever that policy-makers need to seriously consider. With groundbreaking for the plant scheduled for next year, policymakers only have a few years to make a change before Tenaska makes one of its own.

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