Coal Is Making a Comeback, and Nobody Burns it Like Texas

For a time, coal was moribund, on life support. We thought perhaps the country was permanently shrugging off its dependence on the dirtiest of all fossil fuels. Coal-fired power plants were being mothballed en masse. The share of electricity generated by them fell 25 percent between 2005 and 2012.

This was, depending on your political affiliation, either because the EPA was out to drive a stake through coal's black, black hear or, as most financial wonks opined, because it simply couldn't compete with cheap, overabundant natural gas. Either way, power-plant emissions fell, due in no small part to the fact that natural gas produces half as much carbon dioxide.

After seeing the latest numbers on coal-fired generation, it looks like the wonks win and air breathers lose. Natural gas prices are slowly rebounding, and coal is making a comeback. The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts a nearly 9-percent increase in electricity generated from coal this year. And with coal comes carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas. The output of carbon dioxide has steadily declined for years, but those levels are predicted to rise in 2013, according to a report from the Environmental Integrity Project.

Carbon dioxide emissions from power generation rose more than 7 percent during the first quarter of 2013 compared to the previous year. And since everything is allegedly bigger in Texas, including our pollution, we're naturally at the top of the pile. With more than 250 million tons of carbon dioxide released from Texas power plants in 2012, the state doubles the total of Florida, the runner up.

In another dubious distinction, the Martin Lake plant in Rusk County -- owned by Dallas-based Luminant -- was the seventh-highest carbon-dioxide emitting coal-fired plant in the country. To be fair, it's also humongous, capable of powering, according to Luminant, more than a million homes under normal conditions.

Less dubious is the seven-fold increase in wind power Texas has seen since 2005, with another 30 percent projected by 2014.

It's an interesting cycle Texas finds itself locked into. Hydraulic fracturing unleashed a vast store of natural gas, flooded the market and depressed the price. Power-plant demand for cheap natural gas increased and producers eased up on the drilling because prices weren't break-even. Meanwhile, coal lost market share. Now, prices are rebounding, natural gas is slightly less attractive to the power sector and coal is on its way back.

It's easy to see this cycle perpetuated endlessly. Until, that is, EPA regulations begin to exact a price for atmospheric dumping, the way a landfill charges a tipping fee.

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Brantley Hargrove