Big Environmental Victories this Week Against the Tarsands Pipeline and Dirty Coal Power in Austin

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Environmental activists scored major victories this week both locally, with Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell’s announcement that the City of Austin will sell its share in the Fayette Coal Power Plant in La Grange and move towards a coal free energy future, and nationally, with two major developements in the Keystone XL “tarsands” pipeline saga.

On Wednesday, Mayor Leffingwell pledged to join other major cities across the the country in moving Austin off of polluting coal fired energy production by selling Austin Energy’s share in the aging Fayette Coal Plant.  The Fayette plant is a notorious polluter that, according to the Sierra Club, “produces approximately 307 pounds of mercury each year.  Only one gram of mercury is needed to contaminate an entire 20 acre lake.”  Austin has access to viable clean energy alternatives, such as wind power, and the Fayette plant’s inability to comply with upcoming federal emissions standards will see its operational costs “rise significantly over the next few decades.”  As Cyrus Reed, Conservation Director for the Sierra Club Austin put it:


We congratulate Mayor Leffingwell on the renewal of his commitment to move Austin beyond coal. Today's announcement is consistent with a plan first crafted over a year ago and approved unanimously by City Council in February.  Mayor Leffingwell called for a dialogue with the community, with Austin Energy, and with the LCRA. We welcome this dialogue, and as a first step, Sierra Club has developed a plan to phase out of the Fayette Coal Plant by 2016.

I do have a couple of concerns with the announcement that I will look into further in the coming days.  The first is that the electric grid in Texas is run by Ercot (the Electric Reliability Council of Texas) an organization that was first created in 1941 to help industrial production along the Gulf coast.  Under deregulation, Ercot is the sole authority to determine how power flows across the “nodal system” that exists in Texas, for, unlike the other large regional power grids in the US and Canada, Ercot is contained within the borders of Texas and therefore not subject to Federal interstate commerce regulations.  In Texas, if a plant near Dallas has excess capacity, and Waco experiences a power surge, then Ercot determines how much power moves between the two cities.  Even though Austin would sell its share in the Fayette plant, it is not clear whether the city would have a say on which plants were providing power generation to Austin Energy customers.  For more on Ercot, read this extensive PDF.  Also, LCRA (the Lower Colorado River Authority) has stated that they are “proud” of the Fayette plant and have “no plans to close [the plant]and will not support any plan to shut down the plant.”

It is also significant that Leffingwell made his announcement at press conference kicking off his re-election campaign.  When Randi Shade lost her seat to Kathie Tovo in June, Leffingwell lost a strong pro-business ally, and needed support from the generally left leaning council for his big pet project, a $500 million water treatment plant.  It is critically important for Leffingwell to hear from his constituents just how important Austin’s clean energy future is.  

Please contact the Mayor and tell him that you support his decision and want to see Austin powered by clean technologies.  You can easily write him here, or you can attend the Sierra Club’s Town Hall meeting:


Sunday, December 4, 2011

TSEU Office at 1700 South 1st Street, Austin, Texas

3:00-5:00 PM

Nationally, the Keystone XL pipeline that would bring dirty, “tarsands” bitumen from Alberta, Canada to Houston and Port Arthur hit two major obstacles this week.  First, President Obama decided to delay a decision about the pipeline for up to 18 months as the State Department re-evaluates the enivronmental impact of the pipeline route which would take it through at least seven states and over several critical aquifers including the vast Ogalalla Aquifer in the Sand Hills region of Nebraska and the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer in Texas.  Any spill in these areas would be a disaster for millions of farmers, ranchers, and would pollute municipal water systems.  The initial State Department environmental impact statement was written by a paid contractor of Transcanada, the very company that is trying to build the pipeline.  An independent EIS drafted by professionals who are not employed by Transcanada will show how dangerous this pipeline really is.  The administration’s own Environmental Protection Agency has already issued two statements condeming the pipeline, but under an obscure Johnson administration executive order from 1968, they do not have jurisdiction over pipelines that cross international borders.

Obama’s decision is definitely about the 2012 presidential election.  In 2008, Obama ran a progressive campaign, pledging to provide good governance, end the wars, fix the economy, provide health care, and protect the environment.  The results of his first term have been suspect, at best, on all of these issues, and he needs the support of his progressive base to win his re-election.  As Ian Davis, of the Sierra Club, put it, “if he caves on [the pipeline]he will lose his volunteer base,” because this is “a litmus test issue for young people.”  In practice, this delay enables anti-pipeline advocates to increase pressure on the administration from multiple angles, and hopefully make it politically unfeasible for the pipeline to be built.  In Texas, this pressure comes in the form of 391 commissions.  These 391’s are “super governments” formed when any number of mayors or city councils vote to form one and are able to “join and cooperate to improve the health, safety, and general welfare of their residents.”  391’s were instrumental in defeating Rick Perry’s hated Trans Texas Corridor, and are the basis for pipeline opposition in Texas.

Nebraska, which had been the center of anti-pipeline activism, scored its own big victory against the pipeline this week when Transcanada announced it would reroute the pipeline around the state.  The initial route passed through the sensitive Sand Hills region, the primary recharge zone for the vast Ogalalla Aquifer that provides water to a huge area in multiple states across the southern great plains.  In some ways, the success in rerouting the pipeline away from Nebraska will make it more difficult for activists in other states (given the strong, bipartisan opposition to the pipeline in the state); however, the mounting costs associated with the delays will eventually force Transcanada to find an alternative route, or non at all.  The company’s stock as already fallen 9.1% since October 4, and the delays are projected to cost them up to $1 million per day.

I will continue the discussion next week on both issues, and provide more ways to help get Austin off of dirty coal, and keep the US free of dirty Canadian tarsands oil.  

Again, contact Lee Leffingwell here to show him your support for Austin’s clean energy future.  And visit for information on how you can help stop this looming environmental disaster from taking place.


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  1. Great Week for Green Victories
    I have been working on the Tar Sands Pipeline issue for the last 2 years and I always thought that the deck was stacked against us.  I am very proud that President Obama made the decision to delay the project.  I have always said that the key to kill Keystone is to drive up the cost to reflect the environmental impact so that the dirty tar sands oil can't compete in the global energy market.  This decision will have a huge impact and the opportunity to drive up the cost by getting to the landowners along the new route that will be threatened with eminent domain could push the cost up beyond profitability.  

    YES WE CAN move this country toward clean energy.

  2. Great Article, Positive Shift
    Since the Fall of 2009, I've been promoting the economic advantages of transitioning out of Austin's coal plant. Here's a short piece from last week:… re: President Clinton's related perspective.

    In an @Occupy era, Mayor Leffingwell's announcement is a huge step forward. Let's commend him, hold him to it and get to work.

    The negative effects of burning coal are well documented. Suffice to say: health, climate, and environment are irrevocably damaged with each passing hour of coal use. I encourage everyone to learn more.

    I'm proud to see the Texas Sierra Club take the lead on this critical concern by showing a fiscally-guided plan for phase out of Austin's coal use by 2016. I look forward to participating in Leffingwell's dialogue among citizens, leaders, and the LCRA.  

  3. Great News
    Getting out of Fayette not only means less air pollution, it also means more water flowing into the Gulf of Mexico since the coal plant uses 5 BILLION gallons of water a year. That's water that could flow down to our bays and estuaries, supporting wildlife and coastal economies.

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