HOUSTON (AP) - The state's most contested environmental fight in decades is a legal and political dispute over 19 proposed coal-fired electric power plants in East and South Texas, with rivals accusing each other of spending millions to confuse Texans about the plants' dangers and benefits.
Dallas-based TXU Power wants to build 11 of the plants and says they will lower utility costs and ensure a sufficient power supply for the future. Environmentalists, business groups and natural gas companies say the plants would generate so much pollution that the state would fail to meet federal clean-air standards, jeopardizing millions in federal funding.
Gov. Rick Perry issued an executive order ''fast-tracking'' the usual 18-month hearing process for such plants. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality already has granted permits for four of the plants, and is expected to decide on the remainder within the next six months.
Administrative hearings on six of TXU's proposed plants are scheduled to begin Wednesday and continue for about two weeks. The hearing judge will then make a recommendation to TCEQ by April 23, and TCEQ officials will then decide whether to approve the plants.
With the clock ticking, plant opponents in the Legislature have lined up behind a nonbinding resolution sponsored by state Rep. Charles ''Doc'' Anderson, a Republican whose Waco-area district would be surrounded by nine of the plants. Anderson's resolution would ask the TCEQ to impose a 180-day moratorium on applications for pulverized coal-fired power plant permits. The resolution is now pending in the House Committee on Environmental Regulation, which is chaired by state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, an Angleton Republican usually at odds with environmentalists.
Both sides have launched expensive advertising campaigns and hired consultants and lobbyists to persuade Texans and their elected representatives.
''It's one of the biggest environmental issues of the (legislative) session,'' said Ken Kramer, the director of the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club.
Pulverized coal plants crush and burn coal to generate steam, which is used to turn the turbines that generate electricity. Environmentalists consider such plants to be among the most hazardous to the environment and to residents' health, preferring natural gas, solar, or wind generation.
TXU, which plans to spend about $10 billion on its new plants, has said it intends to use low-sulfur coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, which makes the plants more environmentally friendly. The company also says it will spend $2 billion on emission-reducing technology and will offset any increase in emissions with reductions at older plants.
Kramer said even the best technology for coal isn't good enough.
''Probably what they're proposing is better than the old outdated technology, but it's not what we consider to be the best available technology,'' he said. ''We don't really buy into the 'clean coal' concept that some other groups do, and we think it's a shortsighted way of approaching it.''
TXU spokeswoman Kim Morgan said plant opponents are either misinformed or lying. Morgan said TXU officials sent a letter to Environmental Defense last week, asking the group to pull a television advertisement the company called ''egregiously false.''
The ad accused TXU of building plants without modern pollution controls.
''We can have educated discussions and debates about important issues,'' Morgan said. ''And we can do that in a very productive manner. But to start using scare tactics and to purposely mislead the public is taking that a little too far. You're talking about the energy future of Texas here.''
But opponents say the truth is scary enough. Pulverized coal-fired power plants are inherently dirty and contribute to health problems and global warming, they said, and those proposed for Texas would damage efforts to help the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area meet federal air-quality standards. It could also push Waco and perhaps Austin below those standards as well.
If cities do not meet federal air standards, the federal government could cut off some of its $3 billion in annual highway funding to Texas and impose severe restrictions on residential and commercial energy use. Because those restrictions could disrupt business and industry, several business groups - like the Texas Business for Clean Air group - have joined the opposition to TXU and the coal plants.
But the most active opponents to the plants are environmental groups, health groups and coal's chief competitor, the natural gas industry - with the latter supplying much of the money behind the fight.
Federal officials are paying attention as well. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., the chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources committee, and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works committee, have written a joint letter criticizing TXU's plant proposals as being dangerous to the environment warning that the plants may not be exempt from future legislation to limit greenhouse gases.