Coal is the new face of conflict for Texas ranchers. In that drought-stricken state, the water-sucking propensities of coal fired power plants are replacing any enemy Hollywood could ever dream of – even the dreaded fence-erecting farmer. The Boston Globe is reporting that ranchers, along with shrimpers, rice farmers and residents concerned about dwindling water resources, are rising up in organized opposition to new coal fired power plants. As a movement, that’s quite a turnaround for an apparently conservative state, so let’s pick that apart and see what’s going on.
Wind Power an Alternative to Coal in Texas
The most important factor is that Texans have a clear alternative sitting, literally, right in their backyards. Texas is an ideal state for wind power and coal is not the only fuel being pushed out of Texas by the force of wind (ha ha sorry, couldn’t resist); the water-dependent nuclear industry is also starting to back out of plans for new construction in the state. With wind power already relatively cheap and due to be even cheaper thanks to government-supported research, it’s not a stretch to oppose a new coal fired power plant in one’s neighborhood, regardless of whether or not abundant water is at hand. The water rich state of Washington, to cite one example, is closing its only coal fired power plant primarily due to public health concerns and the availability of alternatives.
Drought, Climate Change and Coal in Texas
Texas ranchers are also bearing the brunt of a historic drought. This is a climate change effect that experts have been predicting for years, and its impact on water supply will be exacerbated by a projected increase in population in the coming years. However, as Boston Globe reporter Ramit Plushnick-Masti points out, you can be a hard core climate change denialist and still organize against a new coal fired power plant in your community. He cites the example of a new plant under consideration that would impact water supplies for nearby oyster and shrimp nurseries, as well as a number of large ranches, bringing out opposition from the local Chamber of Commerce among others.
Community Pride and Wind Power
Added to the mix is the fact that Texas imports most of its coal, and you can eventually hand a win to the ranchers. Texas certainly does not have a monopoly on home-state pride but it does have a reputation for being outsized in everything, and wind power has a long and iconic history in the state dating back to its inception. Home-state energy independence could emerge as a powerful public relations weapon on the side of organized opposition to new coal plants. As a counterargument the coal industry touts jobs at coal fired power plants, but wind power projects like the Farmers City Wind Power Project in Missouri demonstrate that jobs and local economic development can just as easily follow wind as coal, so that argument just doesn’t hold water (sorry!!!).
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.