NEW YORK – Have a lump of coal, Merrill Lynch.
That's what environmental protesters dressed in business suits and stovepipe hats delivered to the Wall Street investment bank on Tuesday.
"Billionaires for Coal" and members of the nonprofit Rainforest Action Network staged the stunt to protest the bank's role in financing Dallas-based utility company TXU's plan to build 11 new coal power plants across Texas in the coming years.
Coal-burning power plants spew carbon dioxide and are a large source of toxic mercury emissions. The Rainforest Action Network claims that the 11 plants — among more than 100 new coal-powered generators planned across the country — would emit about 78 million tons of greenhouse gases annually, roughly the equivalent of the exhaust fumes of 14 million cars.
"[Coal] is the highest polluting source of energy," said Rainforest Action Network's Brianna Cayo Cotter. "It's a nasty, nasty source of energy. These TXU coal-fired power plants would lock us in to 50 years of dirty, polluting energy."
But TXU says it's investing about $2 billion in new, cleaner technologies for producing energy, including the more modern coal plants they're hoping to build — which they say are upgraded versions of existing coal generators that create power more efficiently and with fewer harmful emissions.
"They're about 80 percent cleaner than those in existence today," said company spokeswoman Lisa Singleton, citing the energy giant's internal estimations. "Those are the improvements we think we can make."
Singleton said TXU has also made a "voluntary commitment to improve air quality.
"We will fully offset key emissions -- those regulated like carbon dioxide, mercury -- from the new plants and reduce the current emissions from the plants that remain in operation by another 20 percent," said Singleton.
State regulators from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality haven't voted yet on whether to OK permits for constructing the coal plants. Livingston said she hopes a decision will come by year's end at the latest, as the first plant is scheduled to go up in 2009.
"There is an urgent need for power in Texas," said Singleton. She said the state's population is predicted to grow by millions, so "it's critical we get the approvals to start bringing these plants online."
About 18 demonstrators participated in Tuesday's New York City picket of the proposed coal plants, according to RAN, though a spokesman for Merrill Lynch said only about "nine guys" were involved.
"We understand the concerns and believe activists like RAN have a right to speak," Merrill Lynch said in a statement. "They represent one voice in a debate that has yet to come up with all the answers for solving the country's energy needs."
Merrill said it believed the back-and-forth should not be happening in Manhattan.
"We are one of several companies that provide financing to the utility company developing the project and believe the matter needs to be resolved in Texas, not on Wall Street," the bank said.