Vistra Energy is closing three of the worst polluting coal plants in the country — not because it has to, but because it makes good business sense. That’s a victory for everyone.
Earlier this month, we got an unlikely victory at an unlikely time.
Just days after the Environmental Protection Agency issued an outrageous rule that would allow companies in Texas to increase the amount of pollution they emit from burning fossil fuels, the largest energy producer in the state did something enormously positive. Vistra Energy announced it would close two of its most heavily polluting coal plants, its Big Brown Power Plant in Freestone County and its Sandow Power Plant in Milam County, early next year. The announcement followed on the heels of a third announced closure, of the Monticello Power Plant in East Texas, days earlier. It also comes just after the Trump administration announced it would scrap the Clean Power Plan, the key Obama strategy for reducing carbon dioxide pollution from power plants nationally.
The Big Brown Power Plant alone was responsible for more sulfur dioxide emissions than any other coal-fired units in the country — by a significant amount. The Monticello plant created more smog and haze pollution over wilderness areas and national parks than any other coal plant in the country. And Sandow is one of the newer coal facilities in the country, demonstrating that coal as an energy source is not in the company’s best interests. Closing all three plants will reduce sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants in Texas by nearly a third and carbon dioxide emissions by more than 10 percent.
I can’t overstate what an important development this is for air quality in the national parks, health in the Lone Star State and progress toward a more stable climate. There are more industrial sources of air pollution in Texas than in any other state, which contribute to hazy skies over Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountains National Parks, significant public health damage, and climate-disrupting pollution linked to more intense wildfires and hurricanes like Harvey. According to a 2017 report by public health expert George Thurston, pollution from Big Brown and Sandow caused or contributed to more than 6,400 asthma attacks, 187 premature deaths, and 151,000 lost or limited work days every year, resulting in more than $1.6 billion in public health and lost productivity costs annually.
But why would Vistra make this announcement now, just days after the Trump administration literally said it would allow Texas coal plants to pollute more? According to the head of company, it just makes good business sense.
In a press release, Vistra President and Chief Executive Officer Curt Morgan said, “Though the long-term economic viability of these plants has been in question for some time, our year-long analysis indicates this announcement is now necessary.”
It gives me hope that even at a time when it has been especially politically difficult to maintain and enforce responsible environmental policies, many are still moving away from coal — because what’s right for the health of people and the environment is also right for their bottom line.
Let’s be clear: Vistra is hardly a model for responsible business. NPCA has sued the government numerous times to get the company to comply with the very environmental regulations that the current administration has been relentlessly attempting to overturn. These actions have been part of NPCA’s longstanding efforts to drive down air and climate pollution that harms national parks and their millions of visitors.
If this can happen in Texas, it can happen anywhere. In fact, it already is.
Vistra’s announcement marks a remarkable milestone in the fight for cleaner power and cleaner air in the United States. With these two latest plants, half of the country’s sources of coal-fired energy in 2010 have now retired or are slated to retire.
Vistra’s announcement is a positive development, but this in itself is not enough. NPCA and our allies, including Sierra Club, Earthjustice and many others, will continue fighting to drive down more of the pollution that harms national parks and people. We also must act to ensure that announcements like these are followed by enforceable requirements, so we aren’t just taking Vistra’s word, but also holding the company accountable to make sure the pollution from these three plants is gone permanently.
Though it is still such a difficult time to work on environmental issues, news like this reminds me that NPCA and its advocates continue to make a difference, despite the political challenges we face. And that means everyone can breathe a little easier.
About the author
Stephanie Kodish Senior Director & Counsel, Clean Air & Climate
Stephanie Kodish leads NPCA's effort to protect national park resources, visitors and neighboring communities from air and climate pollution.