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Texans Beat Big Coal, and a Film Shows How

April 5, 2008

New York Times

HOUSTON ó David had only a slingshot. Texans fighting big coal have Robert Redford.

A year after an uproar over pollution forced a turnaround in plans for 19 new coal-fired power plants around the state, the battle has been recounted in a documentary, "Fighting Goliath: Texas Coal Wars," commissioned by Mr. Redfordís Sundance Preserve. It spotlights the unlikely coalition of ranchers, big-city mayors and environmentalists that stymied Gov. Rick Perry and spurred the record $45 billion takeover of Texasís biggest electric company, TXU.

To some local surprise, Shell Oil co-sponsored a screening of the film at a forum here last week. Shell supported the event, said its president, John Hofmeister, "because we felt it was an appropriate venue to share and discuss our commitment to developing technologies, such as coal gasification, and other responsible energy solutions."

The 34-minute film, narrated by Mr. Redford, the actor, director and environmental activist who successfully fought a coal-burning plant amid Utah national parks in 1975, also seeks to mobilize worldwide opposition to new coal plants as far away as China.

"We see people taking action against the toxic paralysis from leaders higher up," Mr. Redford, 71, said at the March 27 screening by the Progressive Forum, a speakersí group. "For me itís a question of hope, a small sliver of light from the dark weíve been thrown into the last seven years, so I hope you appreciate it."

Mr. Perry, a Republican, had directed the State Office of Administrative Hearings to speed the approval process for coal-burning plants proposed by TXU. A state judge overturned the order as unlawful, and the utility then worked with environmental groups to be bought out by Energy Future Holdings, scrapping 8 of 11 proposed plants.

A spokesman for Mr. Perry, Robert Black, took issue with Mr. Redfordís account, saying: "As in most things, liberals in Hollywood tend to live in the fiction fantasy world. The governor lives in reality."

The governor had not been trying to bypass rules to fast-track the TXU plants, Mr. Black said. Rather, Mr. Perry "only changed the hands on the clock," telling state regulators that "you donít need to take two or three years on this."

Without new energy sources, Texas would need to begin dipping into its reserves by 2011, Mr. Black said, adding, "Perhaps Robert Redford would like to see Texas like his home state of California, with rolling blackouts."

"Fighting Goliath" opens with the dawning realization of farmers and ranchers near Waco in 2006 that eight proposed coal plants, along with existing power plants, would center them in what the film calls a "ring of fire."

"We were going to have four coal and two gas plants within a mile of our house," said Robert Cervenka, a farmer in Riedel.

Questioning safety assurances by TXU representatives and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality ó one skeptical woman at a Hallsburg City Council meeting says, "I didnít fall off a cabbage truck" ó the townsfolk seek support (somewhat to their surprise) from an Austin environmental lobby, Public Citizen, and Mayor Laura Miller of Dallas, who crisscrosses the state raising alarms about air quality.

The coalition gained other powerful supporters: Mayor Bill White of Houston; Mayor Robert Cluck of Arlington, a physician; and Steve Susman, a Houston antitrust litigator who with his firm, Susman Godfrey, donated more than $2 million worth of legal time and expertise.

His strategy was simple, Mr. Susman said: "Can I make it expensive enough for them to do it wrong?" In the end, 38 Texas cities, towns and school boards joined the fight.

In a forum after the screening, Mr. Hofmeister of Shell said: "An issue was dealt with, but the problem was not solved. We need more energy."

The country now consumes one rail car of coal every three seconds, Mr. Hofmeister said, adding, "If we could gasify coal, we could use it more efficiently and manage its emissions."

Tom Smith, director of Public Citizen and a participant in the film, said at the screening that Texas still had the three of the proposed TXU plants pending, plus four more awaiting permits and at least four others proposed. Around the country, Mr. Smith said, plans for 69 were dropped after the furor in Texas, leaving 80 others.

"We hope," he said, "that the fight we had here in Texas represented in this grouping inspires people in other states and other countries to stand up and say, 'Not in our backyard, not in our community, not in our state, not in our time.' "

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