You don't really have to get too deep into the parts-per-million debate about coal-fired power plants to see the sea change. The really revolutionary shift here is not about the coal. It's the people opposed to the coal.
The roster of people fighting against TXU Corp. on its application to build 11 new coal-fired power plants in Texas is a Who's Who of Dallas money and power: Garrett Boone, Trammell S. Crow, David Litman, Albritton, Altshuler, Anderson, Ayres, Baron, Bartlett, Bass, Bell: Oh, heck, that's just the first dozen of a tally of 150 names shown to me recently by one of the principals.
You keep reading down that list, and it just gets more and more amazing. These are people from the top branches of the money tree. And they are publicly opposed to TXU, on the side of the tree-huggers. I don't know how I can even express what that reflects in terms of Dallas culture.
Look, 10 years ago you could have done this as a multiple choice test for persons of wealth, power and influence in Dallas. Which one of the following would you least like to get caught with at the No-Tell Motel (choose only one): 1) dead woman, 2) live boy, 3) tree-hugger?
I do believe that 10 years ago I would have come up with 150 tree-huggers on that test. People didn't even think you should say "tree-hugger" in front of women.
Litman wanted to make sure I understood that he and his coalition have all kinds of solid business reasons to oppose TXU in its attempt to get its coal plants licensed by the state. But he also said, "It's just a recognition that no resource is infinite.
"We believed in America that we had an infinite amount of land, and we kind of gave up that notion in the 1890s. We believed we had an infinite amount of resources, and we kind of gave that up some time in the middle of the last century.
"And now we don't have an infinite amount of clean air. And we have to do something when a plant like this is proposed that is so obviously not good for business and not good for Texas."
TXU Corp. is asking the governor of Texas to "fast-track" the licensing of 11 new coal-fired power plants that it wants to build between now and 2011. The new plants would produce 78 million tons of pollution a year.
TXU argues that it will offset 100 percent of the pollution produced by the new plants by cleaning up its older plants. There's a complicated argument about what that promise really means.
But let's go back to that one statement by Litman. No resource is infinite. There was a point in time in this city when saying something like that identified you as a fruitcake. I speak as a longtime fruitcake myself, so I'm on solid fruitcake ground here.
Litman refers specifically to the fact that the Dallas metropolitan area is in a status of "non-attainment" on federal clean air standards—an ax dangling over the city's neck already.
Written in blood on that ax is a single word that should strike terror in the heart of Dallas: Atlanta. In 1996 the federal government cut off money for federally supported road and transportation projects in Atlanta, because Atlanta had failed to get itself into compliance with federal clean air standards.
Atlanta and Georgia politicians went to war in Washington to get 61 highway projects grandfathered under the Clean Air Act, arguing that those projects were started at a time when Atlanta was in compliance. The U.S. Department of Transportation was on Atlanta's side.
A federal court ruled the other way. The parties wound up settling out of court, and 17 projects already under contract were allowed to continue. But federal funding for 44 projects was killed, and Atlanta found itself forced to agree to a package of concessions on growth and transportation.
That was all a long time ago now, and yet for years nobody at the top in Dallas has talked about Atlanta or clean air attainment with any sense of urgency. Call it a state of denial, call it a leap of faith: The doctrine here was always universal and damn near religious. All resources are infinite. The only good is growth. All growth is good. People who talk about limitations are a bunch of guitar-plucking negativos.
I said to Litman, "As you speak, I can't help thinking that I've spoken to people in Dallas for years who would have said, 'All this stuff about our being in non-attainment, that's just a legislative problem. We'll send a guy to Washington. We'll get that taken care of.'"
I asked: "Am I crazy or do you not sometimes talk to people who are in positions of leadership in the business community who say, 'We can get around this?'"
Litman said: "I confess to you that I do. There are people out there who say things about global warming and other issues, that there's always another reason for it. But usually it comes down to their also happening to have millions of dollars in construction projects with TXU."
Wow. Listen to that. It's good-old American, hard-eyed business pragmatism—the stuff that made this city great—but it's coming back around the other direction, in favor of environmental responsibility, not against it.
I have a theory for some of this. When we talk about business leadership these days, many of the people we speak of are still in their 40s and 50s. Life is not all about golf and air conditioning for them.
They have ranches. They fly-fish in the mountains. Some of them ride mountain bikes. They have kids who watch penguin movies.
I said to Litman: "I have this litmus test. I say two words. You have to tell me what your reaction is. Al. Gore."
He said, "I'm pretty neutral. He's a pretty middle-of-the-road guy. I'm neutral. But at the same time, he has certainly raised the consciousness of the message. If that's the single greatest achievement of his lifetime, it's not a bad thing."
Under the old rules, that would have been the wrong answer. The right answer was, "Do you mean the famous communist?"
The other fascination for me in the coal-fired fight is the role being played by Dallas Mayor Laura Miller, who took up this mantle in almost the same breath with her announcement last year that she would not seek re-election.
Maybe it's unfair of me, but I saw the new Environmental Laura as a sort of extreme makeover. In my years of watching her perform as a journalist and politician, I just never glimpsed the environmental side. But then, what do I know? I'm caught by surprise that Dallas business leadership can be eco-friendly, so maybe I'm just behind the curve.
Miller has put together a coalition of Texas mayors opposed to the TXU coal plants, and that political vehicle has propelled her to the forefront of the fight, at least in terms of press, especially in terms of national press. Miller has been all over Rolling Stone magazine, Time magazine, BusinessWeek and U.S. News and World Report.
That's publicity that money can't buy, and here in Dallas we know how she does it, right? You don't get that kind of ink being all milquetoast and nuanced and shades of gray. If she were a professional wrestler, her rassler persona would be "The Punisher in Pearls."
I hear all kinds of speculation about why she's out there with this—everything from a congressional run to a campaign for the Senate seat of John Cornyn, whose term expires in 2009. All I know is this: The same tension that occurred eventually between Miller and her early champions in the business community as mayor is a real possibility in the coal-fired fight, if her allies are to be these new eco-friendly moguls.
Last week I attended a press conference she called at 3 p.m., just in time for the evening news cycle but a little late for reporters to get much reaction from TXU. Armed with a nearly 300-page deposition of Mike McCall, chairman and CEO of TXU Wholesale, Miller argued that McCall and TXU were lying to the public.
She said they were being deliberately deceptive about their promise to reduce their overall emissions at existing plants by 20 percent and totally offset any emissions from the 11 new plants.
I watched two Dallas newscasts that night. One of them had a smidge of response from TXU, but both of them carried Miller's accusation that TXU was lying.
Over the next couple of days, I sorted through the deposition. I found lots of places where McCall and the lawyers interrogating him argued about precisely what TXU was promising and how the promises will be kept.
But I didn't find any lies. I don't think you would have, either. Lots of differences of opinion and interpretation. No lies.
An interesting thing happens, I think, when the questions of global warming and the finitude of the earth begin to be settled. We see responsible mainstream leadership moving out of denial and into the search for pragmatic solutions to real problems.
But maybe people at the other side of the page have to move too. I don't know if it works to paint business leaders as liars and devils when you've got business leaders on your side. Maybe the guy across the table from you doesn't have horns on his head after all. Maybe he just has millions of dollars worth of construction projects with TXU.
Does the Punisher in Pearls truly fit in this picture? We shall see.
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