Las Brisas: Friends in Unexpected Places

Coal

Fans of clean air gained an important ally Monday against the proposed $3 billion Las Brisas petroleum coke-fired power plant in Corpus Christi – and it came from inside the state’s own Texas Commission on Environment Quality!

December 14 was the deadline for legal briefs in TCEQ’s permitting process for the enormous “pet coke” plant, and EDF attorneys filed our extensive brief against the permit, as did other interested parties. But we were pleasantly surprised by another brief against the plant filed by TCEQ’s own Office of Public Interest Counsel (OPIC).

The briefs represent closing arguments from November’s hearing before two administrative law judges in the case. After studying the briefs, the judges will make their recommendations to the three TCEQ commissioners, and they in turn are expected to make their final ruling on the permit by summer.

EDF’s attorney Tom Weber welcomed the OPIC brief against the permit, describing it as “significant – but not surprising given the obvious deficiencies in the application.” Although a division of TCEQ, the Office of Public Interest Counsel is specifically charged with representing the public interest in cases before the commission, and Tom hopes that OPIC’s opposition to the permit will carry special weight with the commissioners.

Petroleum coke is a solid byproduct of the petroleum refining process. Composed mainly of carbon, it typically contains significant amounts of sulfur and hazardous air pollutants that must be captured to comply with federal clean air limits. 

We’re opposing the pet coke plant on Corpus Christi’s Ship Channel for the obvious (and familiar) reasons: It threatens the health of people in the area and, like most carbon-fired power plants, it would add enormous quantities of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. TCEQ refused to consider the CO2 issue, but the Las Brisas application provided plenty of omissions and outright errors that we could challenge it on.

Among the problems we cited in our brief are:

  1. The application essentially ignores or underestimates the emissions of fine particulate matter (PM) from both the smokestacks and the dockside handling of the enormous amounts of bulk pet coke and limestone used in the plant.
  2. The applicant’s air dispersion modeling is so plagued with errors, omissions and violations of TCEQ’s own guidelines that the application’s environmental impact analysis is virtually meaningless.
  3. The TCEQ executive director failed to properly apply the federal Best Available Control Technology (BACT) standard on this project, and as a result, many of the emissions listed in TCEQ’s draft permit don’t represent BACT. 
  4. The exec director also failed to perform a case-by-case Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) analysis as required under the Clean Air Act even though the proposed plant will be a major source of hazardous air pollutants. This is particularly egregious given the proposed plant’s proximity to schools and churches – several of which are located within one mile of the plant.

In short, the omissions and errors in the permit are outright violations of the Clean Air Act, which requires certain demonstrations in the application. Neither Las Brisas Energy nor the TCEQ executive director made all the required demonstrations. Therefore, they’ve failed to meet their burden of proof and the application should be denied on the merits. In fact, Tom says this permit application is the most deficient air application he’s ever seen, and it’s encouraging that TCEQ’s own public interest counsel has also found it seriously flawed.

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