Commentary: Misleading fearmongers clouding Texas coal debate
Web Posted: 02/25/2007 01:23 PM CST
Michael E. Webber
In the overheated debate about how Texas will generate future electricity, too many parties are playing fast and loose with the truth — and, in the process, spooking citizens. We need to see past these scare tactics to take an objective look at Texas' energy future.
The propaganda is knee-deep. As the Austin American-Statesman reported, dueling forces are "masquerading as activists" with names such as the Texas Clean Sky Coalition (opposes coal, supported by gas companies) and the Clean Coal Technology Foundation of Texas (supports coal, backed by coal companies). Both sides produce slick, official-sounding fact books, Web sites and guides about what we should really be afraid of in Texas.
Taking a page from recent political campaigns, the pro- and anti-coal forces appeal to some of our basest fears. But instead of politicians taking jabs, these are big energy companies. And while some of them are addicted to oil, coal and gas, they are not addicted to telling the truth.
TXU tried to influence the debate with a 5-inch thick "Fact Book" sent to every state legislator (the biggest waste of paper since the screenplay to "Waterworld") chock-full of false or misleading claims, such as "97 percent of natural gas is from overseas — largely controlled by governments not aligned with U.S. interests." The truth is we import less than 16 percent of our natural gas from overseas, almost all from Canada, hardly a country hostile to the U.S.
TXU's "Fact Book" further claims that competition has caused retail electricity prices in Texas to decrease substantially in 2006. But a Wall Street Journal article on Oct. 27 pointed out that "many Texans are paying 15 cents to 19 cents per kilowatt-hour, about double the national average of eight cents." And now it's reported that TXU is about to ratchet up the rhetoric with its marketing campaign called "Monsters," where monsters in our closets ravage our kids presumably because they don't have enough power to keep the lights on.
The anti-coal groups aren't any better. They raise the specter of doom with intimations that arsenic, lead or radiation will be sprinkled on our food, friends and family, even though these are not toxins highly associated with coal. They stage rallies to fake a grass-roots bearing. Their gripping photos of smudged children were reportedly shot in a Southern California studio, inviting the obvious conclusion that makeup — not coal dust — was the source of the dour faces.
The way out of this mess is to remember, first, that power plants can last 50 years or more and, second, that conservation can be effective immediately to take the edge off of peak power demand. In a matter of months in 2001, California reduced peak power demand by 5 gigawatts without cramping lifestyle or hurting the economy. Texas can implement a similar program, buying ourselves time and avoiding a bad decision that we might regret for decades to come.
That isn't to say coal is the wrong decision for Texas, just that we need to compare it objectively with all the energy options.
The dirty truth is that every power choice — wind, gas, nuclear or coal — has some negative impact in terms of land, air, water, climate or cost. We need more understanding of those trade-offs, and then we can arrive at the right answer together.
Michael Webber is associate director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy in the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin.
Online at: http://www.mysanantonio.com/opinion/stories/MYSA022607.02O.coalcomment0226.90b625.html