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Seeking a cleaner coal

Austin American Statesman

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will consider today an application from Sandy Creek Energy Associates to build a coal-fired power plant at Riesel, near Waco, and we urge commissioners to direct the builder to analyze the possible use of coal gasification technology as a way to reduce air pollution. Such an analysis should become standard procedure as builders apply for permits to design and construct a new generation of coal-fired power plants in Texas.

Coal gasification or integrated gasification combined cycle technology, as it is formally known is a still-new but highly promising method of more effectively removing pollutants from the smoke created by burning coal. Several new plants in the United States use it, and it is at the center of U.S. Department of Energy efforts to make coal plants cleaner.

Texas will need the new coal plants, which haven't been built here since the 1970s, including one jointly owned by the Lower Colorado River Authority and the City of Austin in Fayette County. More power plants were built in Texas in the 1990s, but they burn natural gas, which is increasingly expensive. Now, besides the plant near Waco, five other coal-fired plants are awaiting permits, including two near Victoria.

Unfortunately, while Texas has its own source of coal, it's a low-grade form known as lignite, and it's more difficult to clean when burned. Yet Texas' economic and population growth makes it that much more difficult and more important to keep the air from getting any dirtier. Several urban areas already fall short of federal clean air standards, and the Austin area is often on the verge of non-compliance.

So, while the new coal plants are needed, their builders should be required to include an objective analysis of whether coal gasification technology would work as a more effective coal scrubber than what is currently used. If such an analysis says otherwise, than the plant builder could proceed as planned.

The electric companies resist such a requirement, saying the new generation of plants will be far cleaner than the average U.S. coal-fired plant. Industry spokesmen also say there are questions whether coal gasification would work with lignite.

But the public needs good answers, not just industry doubts. The public will not only use the power generated by those plants, but the air that will be affected by burning coal. Coal plants have proved remarkably long-lived, and if coal gasification is worth using, let's find out before they're built.

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