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White Stallion

Court rules for the EPA against Texas again

Another win for the environment.

A federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld the Obama administration’s new rules that for the first time limit emissions of mercury and other harmful pollutants from coal- and oil-fired power plants.

In a split decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected a Texas-based challenge to the regulations, saying the federal government acted reasonably to protect the environment and public health from poisonous gases and cancer-causing chemicals released into the air by the burning of fossil fuels.

Developers of the White Stallion Energy Center, a proposed power plant about 90 miles southwest of Houston, challenged the federal regulations, arguing that the new limits would be too burdensome and thus prevent them from securing financing for the project. Several industry groups and 22 states, including Texas, joined the fight.

But a divided three-judge panel ruled that federal law and previous court decisions do not require the Environmental Protection Agency to consider cost when imposing new regulations on electric utilities.


At the time the EPA finalized the rules in 2012, Texas was home to seven of the top 16 mercury-emitting coal plants in the nation, an Environmental Defense Fund analysis found.

“There is no other state that is going to get as much public health benefit than Texas from the mercury rule,” said Al Armendariz, a former EPA official who now leads the Sierra Club’s anti-coal campaign in the state.

See here and here for some background. I’ve long since lost track of which lawsuit by Texas against the EPA is about what, and I don’t think I have any previous blogging on this specific case, but it doesn’t matter. It’s all of a piece, and it’s all about whether we make the polluters be responsible for their actions or we give them a free pass. The EPA counters claims that these regulations are too costly for business with evidence that the health benefits for everyone else will outweigh those costs. That will never satisfy the polluters, of course, and I presume they’ll appeal this first to the entire DC court, then to SCOTUS. It’s a nice win for now but it’s far from over. The LA Times, the DMN BizBeat blog, the Texas Green Report, and the EDF, which has a separate statement beneath the fold, have more, while Wonkblog reminds us of the disproportionate effect of industrial pollution on minority neighborhoods.

Environmental Defense Fund applauds today’s ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., denying legal challenges to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) life-saving Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS). Today’s court decision rejects flawed legal claims by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, one of the opponents of EPA’s vital clean air safeguards for our communities and families.

Attorney General Abbott has sued the federal government 31 times since 2004, needlessly costing Texan taxpayer’s nearly $4 million.

The EPA emission standards at issue establish the first nationwide emission limits on the mercury, arsenic and acid gases discharged from the U.S. fleet of existing coal- and oil-fired power plants, the single largest source of these toxic airborne contaminants.

Mercury exposure can impair the brain development of infants and young children. According to the EPA, each year more than 400,000 infants are born with elevated mercury levels in their blood, but the MATS standards will eliminate 90 percent of mercury emitted from coal-fired power plants. In Texas, the rule will annually prevent up to 1,200 premature deaths, while providing between $4 billion to $9.7 billion in health benefits in 2016 and each year thereafter.

“Today’s decision comes as an unquestionable victory for Texans who care about vital clean air safeguards and protecting our most vulnerable citizens – young children and pregnant women. Rather than waste taxpayer’s money and protect the interests of big fossil fuel companies, Greg Abbott and other state leaders should champion life-saving measures that protect the health and well-being of Texans.”

White Stallion coal plant deep sixed

I mentioned this in passing the other day, but the news that White Stallion has been shelved deserves its own post.

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.

The natural gas boom, driven by low prices on natural gas, is the single biggest reason why White Stallion and many other proposed coal plants were scrapped, and the main reason why there are no new coal plants on the horizon after the Waco plant was built. But that wasn’t the only factor – the Environmental Protection Agency did its job, too.

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.

See here for the last update I had regarding litigation over the EPA’s regulation of greenhouse gases. As State Impact notes, White Stallion was in danger of seeing its state permit expire before getting an answer one way or another from the courts, and that would have meant needing to start over, which wasn’t going to happen. Pulling the plug was their only choice. While this is very good news for clean energy proponents, it’s not all good:

“The only downside of this shift to natural gas is that it has made the challenge for renewable energy to be competitive without subsidies even greater,” Rep. [Mark] Strama says. “Because any time that lower-priced natural gas power electricity displaces coal, for the same reason it tends to displace wind and solar. I think this story highlights again the need for a renewable strategy in Texas.”

To that end, Strama has advocated for state incentives and subsidies for more solar and coastal wind projects, which could help the state during hot summer days when demand for electricity is at its peak. He has filed legislation to that end, and is more hopeful that it stands a chance this legislative session.

“Let me put it this way,” Strama says. “We were really close in 2009 to passing meaningful legislation around renewables. [Then] we didn’t come very close in 2011. But this year feels a little more receptive to having a discussion.”

Some of what needs to be done to promote renewable energy in Texas is regulatory and not legislative, but either way there are things to do. In the meantime, let’s celebrate a win for a cleaner tomorrow. The Environmental Defense Fund has more.

Matagorda smog

I feel like there are some pieces missing in this discussion.

Matagorda County, 1920s map from the General Land Office

The Environmental Protection Agency is seeking to add Matagorda County to the list of Texas’ smog violators because Gulf breezes that blow through the area send air pollution toward the sprawling metropolis.

Local leaders are pushing back, saying the dubious distinction would lead to stricter regulation of industry at a time when unemployment is at 11 percent in the county.

“We have two plants, and they are minute by Houston’s standards,” Matagorda County Judge Nate McDonald said. “We are not the problem, so do not throw us under the bus because we are in a two-county proximity.”

McDonald is asking other public officials in the region for support in his fight against the EPA. Houston Mayor Annise Parker, for one, said through a spokeswoman that the federal agency has not made a scientific case to add Matagorda County to the smog list.

The move signifies the first change in geography in the federal efforts to clean Houston’s air. The list long has included Brazoria, Chambers, Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, Liberty, Montgomery and Waller counties.


The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality says EPA data overstates Matagorda’s emissions. Also, federal regulators cannot directly link the pollution to bad air in Houston using models of wind paths, the state agency contends.

“There is nothing we have seen that shows these emissions are contributing to ozone in Houston,” said David Brymer, the TCEQ’s air quality director. “It is just a possibility.”

Carl Young, a scientist for the EPA’s Region 6, which includes Texas, said there is “no bright line” that ties Matagorda’s emissions to Houston’s dirty air, but the “weight of evidence” suggests a connection.

The TCEQ is sufficiently Perry-ized that I don’t trust it in these matters. However, it doesn’t sound like the EPA has (if you’ll pardon the expression) a smoking gun to point to. I doubt Mayor Parker would question the evidence if it were conclusive. So, I don’t know what to make of all this right now. There is an elephant in the room that the story doesn’t being up, though, and that’s the proposed White Stallion Coal Plant in Bay City, which was approved by the TCEQ but is still on hold and recently was unable to get a contract for water. There’s no question that it would have a negative effect on Houston’s air quality. I don’t know what if anything one may have to do with the other, but I’m a little surprised it wasn’t brought up in the story. Whatever the merits of including Matagorda County on the EPA smog list now, they’re surely greater if White Stallion gets built.