By Donna Thomas and Allure Anoma
The following piece first appeared in the Houston Chronicle Petra Nova has since reopened..
In 1988, the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company introduced what it thought would be a revolutionary product that would make everybody happy.
The innovation was called the Premier. The company had invented the world’s first smokeless cigarette, intended to dramatically reduce the health impacts of lighting up. Fewer health risks for the smoker and no more nuisance for anyone who happens to be around the smoker. And, of course, profits for R.J. Reynolds. Everybody wins, right? Not really.
The cigarette was not entirely smokeless and still raised many health concerns among medical professionals. Smokers hated it, too. Less than a year after its introduction, the Premier was gone, having cost R.J. Reynolds hundreds of millions of dollars to develop.
Here in Fort Bend County, we are home to our own Premier of sorts: the Petra Nova carbon capture project, which has sat idle near Richmond for more than three years, failing to live up to the hype.
Now, Petra Nova’s new sole owners have announced the facility will reopen soon. It is a terrible idea.
Carbon capture is not new, but it is costly and remains largely unproven. The technology’s roots go back to the 1920s. Its fundamental promise is capturing climate-damaging carbon to be stored or repurposed instead of allowing it to flow freely into the air when fossil fuels are burned.
Announced in 2010 and opened in 2016, Petra Nova was billed as the biggest carbon capture project in the world. Owned at the time by Houston-based NRG Energy and the Japanese fossil fuel corporation JX Nippon, Petra Nova is an attempt to let fossil fuel companies have their cake and burn it, too.
Supporters of carbon capture claim that the technology makes it possible to keep burning fossil fuels without putting vast amounts of climate-warming emissions into the atmosphere. By building the facility at NRG’s WA Parish Generating Station, Petra Nova sought to make one of the most infamous coal-burning power plants a model for allegedly “clean coal.” But it didn’t turn out that way.
The Houston Chronicle reported that outages plagued Petra Nova from the start, falling about 1 million tons short of the approximately 3.2 million tons of carbon emissions it was projected to capture in its first two years. Its technological failures aside, Petra Nova was also a drag on the bottom line. After spending about $1 billion — approximately $440 million of which were grants and low-interest loans from the U.S. Department of Energy — to build Petra Nova, its owners shut the project down in May 2020. Petra Nova’s captured carbon was being used to squeeze out oil from low-performing wells, but when the price of oil tanked at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, so did Petra Nova’s ability to generate profits.
Now, JX Nippon wants to give Petra Nova a second, likely costly, shot. After buying NRG’s portion of Petra Nova at a deep discount, the Japanese corporation announced plans to reopen the facility this summer. JX Nippon finalized the purchase after the passage of the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, which includes misguided tax incentives for carbon capture projects. It means that, if it chooses to, JX Nippon can benefit by letting taxpayers once again foot part of the bill for the project.
There is also a human cost to reopening Petra Nova.
Burning coal generates ash with contaminants that can make it into the air and the water supply. These contaminants and other emissions, which carbon capture won’t sequester, can cause numerous illnesses, including cancer. Rice University researchers estimate that WA Parish’s coal-burning units are responsible for 178 premature deaths per year in Texas and neighboring states, making it one of the deadliest coal plants in the country.
Suppose carbon capture cannot provide proven benefits to health and the environment. Those projects become an excuse to continue burning fossil fuels and to invest in a dying industry.
Across the country, coal power plants are closing thanks to cheaper and cleaner ways to generate electricity. For example, the costs of wind and solar continue to drop. San Antonio’s CPS Energy has acknowledged coal’s financial and environmental realities. The municipal utility will stop burning coal at the JK Spruce Power Plant by the decade’s end.
Rather than reopening Petra Nova, JX Nippon should also come to terms with these realities. As should NRG, especially now that the Environmental Protection Agency is poised to implement a regional haze rule for power plants that could make coal plants an even bigger money-loser on average.
Petra Nova was already proven a debacle once. Its owners can try again, but just like R.J. Reynolds couldn’t make smoking safe, neither can Petra Nova make burning coal safe for people or the environment.
There really is no good reason to keep burning coal. Petra Nova won’t change that.
Donna Thomas is the founder of Fort Bend County Environmental, and Allure Anoma is the transportation associate for the Texas office of Public Citizen. They both live in Fort Bend County.