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Texas, EPA continue blame game as Luminant announces coal plant closures, 500 jobs cut

The latest big fight between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Texas officials sounds a lot like the last one, but with one big difference announced Monday: actual job losses.

The EPA announced in 2010 it’d begin issuing greenhouse gas permits to Texas polluters because the state refused to do so. Gov. Rick Perry, state regulators, Attorney General Greg Abbott and plenty of others jumped in to complain about the job losses sure to follow from the extra regulation.

“Tens of thousands” of jobs hung in the balance, Perry warned in June 2010, but as the Dallas Morning News reported Saturday, those losses have yet to materialize.

Perry made an example of Garland Power & Light as one utility in particular danger of closing because of the greenhouse gas rules. Today, a spokeswoman told the News they’re “running as normal,” and indeed, the EPA announced all the companies subject to regulation had applied for new permits.

The federal agency and Texas officials took the same fight to a new regulation earlier this summer, with the EPA’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, a re-working of a George W. Bush-era regulation that would tighten emissions allowed from a few of Texas’ coal-fired power plants. State officials warned the move would cost Texas jobs and endanger the state’s power grid; the EPA said the burden on Texas industry would be manageable.

Some lawmakers who don’t object to the regulation outright (including at least one state Democratic stalwart) say the rule’s simply coming on too fast. The Texas Senate Natural Resources Committee is meeting in Austin today to discuss the rules.

The big development this week, days after the Morning News’ piece on the greenhouse gas regulations’ phantom job losses, was an announcement from Luminant, the state’s largest electric provider, that it would, indeed, be cutting about 500 jobs in order to comply with the new cross-state pollution rules:

“We have spent the last two months identifying all possible options to meet the requirements of this new rule, and we are launching a significant investment program to reduce emissions across our facilities,” said David Campbell, Luminant’s chief executive officer in a statement. “However, meeting this unrealistic deadline also forces us to take steps that will idle facilities and result in the loss of jobs.”

The Dallas-based company said it would mothball two units at a power plant and shut down some associated coal mining, in order to brings its emissions under the EPA guideline. Luminant also challenged the rule in court.

Environmentalists in Texas called it good news that Luminant would be shuttering two of the dirtiest coal plants in Texas, rather than pay to refurbish them with extra controls. “There’s no point throwing good money away on bad units,” said Neil Carman, director of the air pollution program at the Sierra Club’s Texas chapter, according to Greenwire.

Republican Texas Congressman Bill Flores, the TCEQ, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and others all issued statements decrying the job losses. “The Obama Administration continues to put up road blocks for our nation’s job creators by imposing burdensome regulations based on assumptions, not facts, that will result in job losses and increased energy costs with no definite environmental benefit,” Perry said in a statement of his own.

But ThinkProgress called Luminant’s announcement “a crass shifting of blame” from the company that bought the plant four years ago, and still carries $10 billion in debt on the units, which have proven a bad investment as natural gas and wind power spread.

The EPA argued that Luminant jumped the gun on its decision, sacrificing jobs to take the “cheapest way out,” as its Dallas-based regional EPA chief Al Armendariz tweeted Monday. Armendariz also tweeted links to studies that said Texas’ power grid could manage the adjustment to the rule, and correspondence between the agency and Luminant urging it not to bail on their months of negotiations.

“It is unfortunate that company leadership rushed to a decision that needlessly puts their workers’ jobs at risk,” said EPA spokeswoman Gina McCarthy in a statement Monday.

As the Houston Chronicle’s FuelFix blog pointed out, other companies have said they’re in good shape to keep operating under the new rule:

Princeton, N.J.-based NRG Energy, the second-largest power generator in Texas, said it will comply by increasing the efficiency of its scrubbers by 10 to 15 percent and using more low sulfur coal.

NRG’s Parish power plant in Fort Bend County uses a low-sulfur coal from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, while its Limestone plant uses a lignite/Powder River mix. The plants also have installed a full range of new pollution controls.

The Lower Colorado River Authority also said it is in good shape to meet the requirements at its 1,600-megawatt coal fired Fayette Power Project, 90 miles west of Houston. This year, LCRA installed new scrubbers in its two oldest units that remove about 95 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions.

“It’s hard to take this company seriously when other large electric utilities have had no trouble slashing their pollution,” Ilan Levin, a Texas-based attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, told the paper.

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