Thursday, April 12, 2007

TXU and Coal's Future

I rarely pay attention to newspaper ads, but a full-page ad in yesterday's Wall St. Journal caught my eye. It featured a photo of a young girl with her face covered with grime. The tag line below the photo read, "Face It. Coal Is Filthy." It included a statistic comparing greenhouse gas emissions from a coal power plant to "cutting down 161 million trees." Only when I followed the link below the ad did I learn that the Clean Sky Coalition that sponsored the ad is, in fact, the Texas Clean Sky Coalition, and that the ad, along with its smaller companions scattered throughout the Marketplace section, is really another salvo in the battle over TXU and its power plant construction plans. Could this tactic mushroom into a broader anti-coal strategy, covering any new coal-fired power plant, anywhere? If so, the TXU takeover (2/26/07) could prove to be even more pivotal for coal than it first appeared.

"Live longer. Live better. No new filthy coal plants." Strong, direct language aimed not at regulators or voters, but at investors. Environmental groups have become very savvy at determining where the leverage lies in a given situation, and here it's with TXU's stockholders. Although competing offers for the company now look unlikely, preserving the environmentally friendly bid of KKR and its partners has become an environmental cause celebre. Whatever influence this has on the transaction at hand, it's not hard to imagine it having a wider appeal.

Coal looks vulnerable, too. Consider how different the prospects for coal would be, absent concerns about global warming. The combination of high oil and gas prices and growing calls for energy independence seem tailor-made for a big increase in coal consumption and fantastic growth for coal companies. That could still happen, given the opposition to the other primary base-load electricity technology, nuclear power, and emerging concerns about the limitations of biofuels. If it does, though, it will be an uphill battle.

The clever part of the Clean Sky Coalition's campaign is its conflation of greenhouse emissions with familiar forms of pollution. It's clever, because even if the Supreme Court didn't specifically label CO2 as a pollutant, it certainly put it in the same bucket with SOx, NOx and particulates. If you didn't already know that CO2 was colorless and odorless, you just might think that it was responsible for those blackened faces--and lungs?--besides warming the planet. How many people already think that the ozone hole and global warming are caused by the same things? Lumping CO2 together with the causes of local air pollution could create some very tough new obstacles for coal. Between the long-term challenges highlighted in the recent MIT report (3/15/07) on the future of coal and the "Face It" campaign, the environment for coal producers and coal-based utilities looks increasingly daunting.

No comments: