Developers drop plans for Texas coal plant

Developers have dropped plans for the White Stallion Energy Center about 90 miles southwest of Houston, signaling the end of a once heady rush to build several new coal-fired power plants across Texas.

White Stallion is the latest abandoned coal-burning project amid record low prices for natural gas and increased environmental scrutiny. The decision announced Friday means that Texans might not see another coal plant built after an 800-megawatt unit near Waco comes online in April.

The demise of the White Stallion project “hopefully represents the last dying gasp of ‘new’ coal plants in Texas proposing to employ technologies from the last century,” said Jim Marston, who leads the energy program for the Environmental Defense Fund.

Texas now has 19 coal plants, but once had plans for more. In 2005, Gov. Rick Perry issued an executive order that put their permits on the fast track, but most approved projects were never built.

$2.5 billion project

Since November alone, NRG Texas Power has scrapped its planned Limestone 3 coal project near Waco, while Chase Power Development has pulled the plug on a proposed Corpus Christi plant fueled by petroleum coke, the carbon-rich leftover from nearby oil refining.

The $2.5 billion White Stallion project similarly fell victim to abundant natural gas as a cheaper and cleaner burning fuel for power plants. Natural gas provides 45 percent of the state’s electricity, while coal accounts for 34 percent.

Even though Texas needs more power to meet growing demands, “the presently low price of natural gas has made the price of electricity from a new coal-fired generator uncompetitive at this time,” said Randy Bird, White Stallion’s chief operating officer.

Bird also blamed the project’s demise on “additional regulatory barriers” proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Perry spokesman Josh Havens criticized the EPA, too, saying it is more difficult to build new coal-fired power plants with “the ever changing and increasingly stringent regulations.”

“In a state that is growing as rapidly as Texas, we need all technologies to keep up with energy demand,” Havens said.

Pastoral plant setting

White Stallion had run afoul of new federal limits on emissions of mercury and other toxic pollutants. The project’s developers had asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to review the regulations, but the case is on hold.

The project also faced the EPA’s first-ever limits on emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases linked to global warming from new power plants.

And it did not have the support of many locals.

The developers had proposed to build the 1,200-megawatt plant, fueled by coal and petroleum coke, on the coastal plains of a mostly rural Matagorda County, which is known for birds and beaches, ranches and rice. It would have provided power to 600,000 homes.

Mercury, which is released into the air when coal is burned in power plants, tends to fall back to earth close to the source. It takes only a small amount of the toxic metal to contaminate bays and rivers, a prospect that worried those who live and fish near where the facility was to be built.

Judge now a skeptic

“It is just a great day,” Bay City resident Allison Sliva, who fought the project, said after learning of its demise. “We did not need this plant to dirty up our beautiful area.”

While developers promised the cleanest coal plant in the state, Matagorda County Judge Nate McDonald said he could not get guarantees from them that they would use the lowest-polluting technology. He grew skeptical of the project after being an early supporter.

“It just was not a great business deal for Matagorda County,” said McDonald, who has not spoken to the developers in two years. “They made assurances, but they would not contractually obligate to them.”