Texas drought endangers power projects

Ever since the days of Spindletop, when oil first spewed from the soil near Beaumont, Texans have embraced the energy industry. But the worst drought in decades is straining that cozy relationship and spurring protests against projects that once would have been seen as a boon to prosperity.

From Bay City on the Gulf Coast to the West Texas plains, energy companies are facing stiff opposition to proposed power plants that would serve the state's fast-growing population. Groups of ranchers, shrimpers, rice farmers and residents have banded together to oppose the plans.

"We have people that need water that don't have water," said Allison Sliva, who leads the group fighting a proposed coal-fired power plant in Bay City, a rural area about 80 miles south of Houston. "We can't continue to burn coal and have industrial plants that require huge amounts of water."

The groups are pressing government agencies not to approve permits for construction and in some cases are going to the courts. Some plants are having trouble lining up water supplies from local water authorities, which normally welcome the revenue.

The conflicts pit the state's love of growth and energy against growing fears of a parched future, as the drought moves into winter and water resources diminish further. The concerns could pose problems for a state projected to grow 82 percent by 2060.

"We don't have enough water to go around right now," said Larry Soward, a water expert who formerly served on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. "As the population grows that demand is far exceeding the supply ... the water is simply not there."

Texas is diversifying its supply of energy to cope with its growth. Just in the past decade, Texas' population has grown 21 percent to more than 25 million.

Electric facilities that use biomass as fuel are being built. Nuclear facilities are to be expanded. New transmission lines are being constructed. And Texas is now the No. 1 producer of wind energy.

Except for wind-power units, however, most facilities require large amounts of water to generate electricity. According to a University of Texas study, the state will need more than 287 billion gallons of water a year to generate electricity in 2020, about 100 billion gallons more than in 2000. Yet the state's water plan shows a growing water shortage, worsened by the drought.

By the end of September, Texas had received an average of 8.6 inches of rain, less than half the normal amount. The drought is projected to continue into the next year. Already, many towns are running low on water, and many municipal water suppliers have imposed mandatory or voluntary water restrictions.

Most of the new power projects, and the protests, involve coal-fired facilities. At least nine are in planning stages, which would add to the 19 now operating, more than any other state. Only nuclear plants use more water than coal-fired energy production.

Lisa Camooso Miller, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based lobbying group, American Coalition for Clean Coal, said Texas needs more energy to continue developing, and that coal is the most efficient way to provide it. Although Texas is rich in natural gas while coal must be hauled in from Kentucky, coal-fired power is still more economical, while natural gas prices are historically volatile, she said.

"Now is not the time to take a chance with an energy source as it relates to cost," Miller said, noting that coal plants provide 37 percent of Texas' electricity.

Texans don't generally oppose coal or new energy production. Unlike some power plant opponents elsewhere, many members of the protesting Texas groups are politically conservative and don't to fossil fuels.

"Our population is booming and I know those people need water, I know the municipalities need water, and I know industry needs water," says Donna Harrison, a fourth generation rancher whose voice cracks with emotion when she talks about the proposed Bay City coal plant.

However, Sliva and others argue Texas should rely more on natural gas for energy production, which uses less water.

But utility officials argue that natural gas fired plants may use less water in house, but tens of millions of gallons of water are needed to extract natural gas from the ground.

"Coal will always be the most economical," said Randy Bird, chief operating officer of the Houston-based White Stallion Energy Center.

Still, White Stallion and other proposed plants are having trouble finding water suppliers.

White Stallion plans to build its plant on the banks of the Colorado River at Bay City, which feeds estuaries that serve as oyster and shrimp nurseries and irrigation for the pastures and fields of the massive ranches.

The company moved ahead, ignoring the bright yellow "Stop White Stallion" signs. Slowly, members of the Chamber of Commerce, the school district, the county and other officials abandoned support for the plant, despite the jobs it would supply.

Finally, Bird announced the facility would use a more expensive dry cooling method, requiring about 978 billion gallons of water a year — 85 percent less than the initial plan. He said he hopes much of it can be bought from turf farmers willing to sell groundwater.

Paul Sliva, a rice farmer who faces the prospect of having no water for his crops next season, said he's not sure why anyone would sell water at this point.

"The drought has taught us there's not enough water to begin with," Sliva said.


You can follow Ramit Plushnick-Masti on Twitter at https://twitter.com/RamitMastiAP