No Coal, No Power, No Gas

Let's see if I get this straight. During the early February cold spell in the southern plains, when wind chills in Dallas dipped to minus twenty degrees, Texans were going without power to heat their homes and businesses even as the state was sitting on massive surpluses of natural gas. Even hospitals were having to switch to emergency generating systems. And this in the state with the largest energy production capacity in the continental US.

How was it that Texas suffered an extended period of
rolling blackouts at a time when there's a glut of coal and natural gas waiting to be used?

The answer may be quite simple. It seems that a great deal of natural gas got "stuck in the pipes" because there was not enough electricity to operate the pumps to move it along. And there was not enough electricity to operate the pumps because environmentalists had seen to it that plans for new coal-powered generating plants had been shuttered back in 2007. So without the coal, there was no electricity, and without the electricity, there was no natural gas. And since much of the natural gas was intended to supply electrical power generating plants, there was even less electricity to supply the pumps and everything else.

The Texas power blackouts affected millions of homeowners and businesses, as well as vital services such as hospitals, schools, and police and fire services. An extended loss of power during periods of extreme temperatures endangers everyone. It cuts off emergency responders from those in need, and it leaves citizens freezing in their homes. The loss of power reduces modern society to an anarchic level where each is left to fend for himself.

Unfortunately, environmentalists in Texas who blocked the construction of coal-powered plants and shut down others during the last decade did not consider these consequences. All that they thought of was that coal is "dirty," so coal must go. They did not consider what would take its place. Had the coal generating facilities that were planned a decade ago by Texas Power been in place, the rolling blackouts of 2011 might well have been avoided.

As it happened, plans for construction of eight large coal-powered plants were scrapped in 2007 in a private equity deal crafted by the environmental action group, Environmental Defense. Under the agreement, TXU, the Texas power company, agreed to discontinue plans for eight Texas plants, halt construction of coal-powered plants in other states, reduce its carbon footprint to 1990 levels, and endorse the US Climate Action Partnership agenda. This radical transformation of TXU contributed to regulatory approval for takeover of the company by private equity group KKR (Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts).

It is ironic, considering the freezing temperatures that Texans endured during the first week of February, that an agreement to discontinue construction of coal-powered plants was predicated on the now discredited theory of man-made global warming. In order to lower global temperatures, as they imagined, environmentalists pressured TXU to accept a plan that made it impossible for the citizens of Texas to heat their homes.

Can there be any doubt that the agreement to discontinue eight large power plants was a contributing factor in the rolling blackouts of February 2011? The generating capacity supplied by these plants would not have been dependent on the pumping of natural gas. It would have continued to heat homes and businesses, and to power emergency services, throughout the storm. Instead, the state was left depending on an inherently less reliable mix of power sources.

The Texas blackouts are a foretaste of what the rest of the country can expect, given the concerted effort of the Obama administration to shut down coal generating plants and to place obstacles in the way of coal mining. Just weeks ago, the EPA revoked the permit for Arch Coal's Spruce Number One mine in Virginia, one of the largest coal mining projects in the country. For the past two years, in fact, the EPA has pursued a hyper-aggressive program of enforcement that seems intended to price coal electrical generation out of the market. As in Texas, plans for new coal power plants have been scrubbed. They have been replaced by plants powered by natural gas, and by heavily subsidized wind and solar generation.

The problem is that natural gas plants have not come on line quickly enough to replace the coal generation that has been lost, and wind and solar, which make up only 1% of power generation anyway, are inherently unreliable. The wind does not blow all the time, nor does the sun shine at night.  Had the US retained its reliable base of coal power generation, there would be less danger of further blackouts. As it is, much of the country is in danger of experiencing outages similar to those in Texas.

Ironically, the US is in danger of power blackouts at a time when it is exporting greater and greater amount of coal to China and other countries. Already, America is sending 80 million tons of coal overseas, but plans are underway to increase exports by 10% in 2011. Countries overseas understand that coal is the cheapest and most reliable form of energy available for producing electrical power. At a time when America is curtailing its coal generating capacity, China and India are building one new coal generating plant every week. And America is shipping its vital resources overseas even as its citizens are left, quite literally, out in the cold.

Jeffrey Folks is author of many books and articles on American culture and politics.
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