Bill could affect state's permit process for coal plants

WASHINGTON, D.C. - A bill moving through Congress could force Texas to consider the impact of new coal-fired power plants on smog in North and Central Texas, an analysis that state regulators have insisted they don't have to perform.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which regulates air pollution in Texas, won't consider the total impact of emissions when granting permits for new plants.

But Rep. Chet Edwards, who wrote the study into an appropriations bill, insists the analysis is needed to know whether new coal plants would push Central Texas beyond federal smog standards. Mr. Edwards, D-Waco, wants the nonpartisan Governmental Accountability Office to do the study next year. The GAO lacks regulatory authority, but its findings would be noteworthy enough that state and federal regulators would have to consider them, he said.

"It just does not make sense to be setting the mold for the level of pollution in Central and North Central Texas for the next 30 or 40 years without first having a complete, cumulative impact study," Mr. Edwards said. The study also would account for the plants' impact on Dallas' and Fort Worth's level of ozone, which is the chief component of smog, he said. Officials said the TCEQ has two pending applications for coal-fired power plants in Central Texas - one in Limestone County and the other in Robertson County.

"There isn't a magic wall that prevents pollution from Central Texas plants from drifting into the D-FW area," Mr. Edwards said. Gov. Rick Perry opposed an earlier attempt to get the Environmental Protection Agency to perform the study. Mr. Perry said the analysis was unnecessary and would send a message that Texas is hostile to coal plants.

Allison Castle, a spokeswoman for Mr. Perry, said that the governor no longer opposes the study because Mr. Edwards' language strikes a balance between pollution concerns and energy needs, she said.

"We welcome any study that will show us how to meet our growing energy needs," Ms. Castle said. The $933 billion spending bill appeared headed for approval in the House recently. A spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget said President Bush was "encouraged" by the level of spending, suggesting the president would sign the bill if it passes both houses of Congress.

The proposed study grew out of last year's fight over new coal-fired plants proposed by TXU Corp., now known as Energy Future Holdings, and other companies for a total of 17.

TXU proposed 11 plants but later dropped the number to three. The city of Waco, Mr. Edwards' hometown, opposed the new plants. Officials worried that new plants around Waco would push the area into federal nonattainment status. Nonattainment status means an area's ozone levels exceed the level deemed safe by the EPA. It requires the sort of pollution cuts that North Texas - which is out of compliance - has been forced to adopt.

If the study shows that new plants would push Waco out of compliance, it could provide federal regulators with the ammunition to oppose permits for new plants, Mr. Edwards said.

Permits are issued by the state environmental commission. Mr. Edwards said he would support the plants if the study showed no serious impact on Waco's air quality.

"The problem is right now nobody can objectively answer that question," he said.


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