MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
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And I'm Michele Norris.
Houston vies with Los Angeles for the title of the nation's smoggiest city. Now, Texas utility companies are proposing 18 new coal burning power plants over the next four years.
NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports that while the Texas governor is in favor, some big city mayors are putting up a fight.
WADE GOODWYN: There is a race going on in Texas. In one lane, the state's major utility companies have teamed with Texas Governor Rick Perry to build 18 new power plants as soon as possible. To that end, the governor has issued an executive order fast tracking state permits for the proposed plants.
In the other lane is a coalition of Texas mayors, newspaper editors and environmentalists. They're playing the tortoise in this race, trying to stave off the coal plants by slowing the process down until more Democrats get elected in Washington, D.C.
Ms. LAURA MILLER (Mayor of Dallas): There's a national movement by the utility companies to build coal burning plants, and the reason is coal is plentiful, coal is cheap and unfortunately, coal pollutes the air aggressively.
GOODWYN: Laura Miller is the mayor of Dallas and along with Houston Mayor Bill White, she's leading the fight against the proposed coal-burning plants.
Ms. MILLER: I don't think people have any idea what it will be like if we have 18 power plants now, and they wake up in five years and we have twice as many then. I think you're going to see a significant change in the way our sky looks.
GOODWYN: Miller wants the utility companies to utilize a rising star in coal plant technology. It's called integrated gasification combined cycle, and this kind of coal plant is between 70 and 90 percent cleaner than the plants proposed for Texas. But it's also more expensive. To Miller's extreme dissatisfaction, all of the proposed power plants in Texas plan to use traditional coal technology.
Mayor MILLER: I don't blame the utility companies for wanting to do it, but I think it's incumbent on elected officials and citizens to say wait a minute, that is old technology. There is newer, better, cleaner technology available, and we want you to consider that instead.
GOODWYN: Seventeen other Texas mayors, representing about a third of the state's population, have joined Miller in opposition to the current proposal. But the governor's appointees will make the final decision. Rick Perry declined to comment for this story, but in an op-ed piece to the Dallas Morning News, the governor wrote that he believed that any delay in building the proposed plants would damage the state's economy. Perry dismissed the opposition's concerns over air quality, arguing they wanted to return Texas to the era of the horse and buggy. And the governor emphasized that the utility companies would reduce some pollutants by 20 percent or more. Eric Hendrickson, the state engineer who's reviewing the plants' permit applications, explains.
Mr. ERIC HENDRICKSON (State Engineer, Texas): These newer units are cleaner than the older units, and then there will be additional controls applied to the existing facilities, and a lot of different utilities are contemplating how they're going to control emissions to get to those new levels.
GOODWYN: The new coal plants will pollute the air with nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and mercury, but they will be much cleaner than existing plants. But the old plants will continue running full bore. There are no plans to shut them down or replace them. But one emission the federal government does not regulate is carbon dioxide, the primary global warming gas. The new power plants in Texas will emit the equivalent of 19 million automobiles worth of carbon dioxide every year. When all the new plants are up and running, Texas will send up its stacks nearly as much carbon dioxide as California, New York and Florida combined.
(Soundbite of power plant)
Mr. CLIFF WATSON (Production Manager, Big Brown): Right now we're looking at Big Brown One and Two. Each unit produces 630 gross megawatts.
GOODWYN: Cliff Watson is the production manager at TXU's Big Brown, whose two units burn 40,000 tons of coal every day. Massive haulers carrying 100 tons of coal work around the clock to feed the furnaces.
(Soundbite of rumbling noise)
Mr. MIKE McCALL (CEO, Wholesale Division, TXU): The modern coal plant of today is quite a different power plant than the one 30 years ago.
GOODWYN: Mike McCall is the CEO of the utility company TXU's wholesale division. He says that emissions from their new plants will be nothing like Big Brown, and McCall says that TXU plans to spend half a billion dollars to install some pollution devices on some of its older plants, too.
Mr. McCALL: We're going to come in and voluntarily make significant retrofits on our existing fleet. We're going to add 9,000 megawatts of power, but our emissions are going to be 20 percent less than our 2005 levels.
GOODWYN: But TXU and the other utility companies say they're not going to use coal gasification for any of the plants in Texas.
Mr. McCALL: Coal gasification is a technology we are very interested in, but it is not ready yet for Texas. The state needs power. We've got millions of people moving to the state. And we wanted to step up in a way that was comprehensive.
GOODWYN: But the increasingly organized opposition refutes that there is an urgent need for 9,000 megawatts of additional capacity. They say the real urgency is political, that the utility companies are taking advantage of the fact that their allies still control all branches of government in Washington, D.C., and Austin.
Mr. CRAIG McDONALD (Texans for Public Justice): The relationship between the utility companies and Rick Perry has been a cozy one. Texas has a pay-to-play government. It's not pretty, but that's the way it works down here.
GOODWYN: Craig McDonald is the director of Texans for Public Justice, a political watchdog group which tracks campaign contributions in Texas. McDonald says Governor Rick Perry has received $148,000 from the retired chairman of TXU alone.
Mr. McDONALD: The retired chairman of Texas utilities, Earle Nye, gave the governor $2,000 on the day that Governor Perry signed the order to expedite TXU's coal fired plants. Last year they employed 52 paid lobbyists at the tune of $3 million.
(Soundbite of cows)
GOODWYN: The governor's decision to speed up the permitting process has drawn attention around the state. His executive order is especially not going over well with ranchers in central Texas, where many of the new power plants will be built.
Ms. RUTH PILANT: I think he's been bought off. TXU has given him money to fast track these permits, and just give him enough money, and he'll do most anything, apparently.
GOODWYN: Ruth Pilant's land is located inside what she calls the ring of fire, surrounded by what will eventually be six major coal burning power plants.
Ms. PILANT: Why don't these people see what they're doing to the state of Texas? Do we want to be known as the most coal fired plants in the United States? I don't feel good about that. I want to see the stars in the sky. That's what we're out here for, that's the reason we're in Texas.
(Soundbite of hootin' and hollerin')
GOODWYN: Two hundred ranchers have formed a group they call T-Power - Texans Protecting Water, Environment and Resources - and are vowing to fight. The formal hearings on the power plant permits begins this fall in Austin, with the state government and the utility companies on one side of the aisle, and the ranchers, mayors and environmentalists on the other, the level of debate is predicted to be lively.
Wade Goodwyn, NPR News.