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Leffingwell vows to move toward ending city’s stake in coal power plant

Thursday, November 17, 2011 by Mark Richardson

Mayor Lee Leffingwell, on announcing that he will run for a second term as Austin’s Mayor, vowed Wednesday to begin the process of extricating the city from its involvement with coal for electric generation. Austin Energy owns half of the Fayette Power Project near LaGrange, along with the Lower Colorado River Authority.


Leffingwell told a group of supporters gathered at Becker Elementary School, which he attended as a child growing up in South Austin, that moving the city towards selling its share of the coal-fired plant would be a key goal of his second administration.


“I’m going to begin a dialogue with the community, with Austin Energy, with the LCRA, and with state officials, about how to make Austin coal-free – and  aggressively plan a date to achieve that goal,” he said.“The global energy market is changing and we need to change with it. Right now wind prices are competitive with fossil fuels, and that is critical.”  


The first unit of the Fayette plant came online in 1979, with expansions in 1980 and 1988. The plant currently has a generating capacity of almost 1,700 megawatts. It uses low-sulpher coal brought in by rail from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming.


Leffingwell’s pledge brought an immediate statement from the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club, which has campaigned to get rid of the coal plant.


“We congratulate Mayor Leffingwell on the renewal of his commitment to move Austin beyond coal. Today’s announcement is consistent with a plan first crafted over a year ago and approved unanimously by City Council in February,” said Cyrus Reed, Conservation Director for Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club, and a former member of the city’s Resource Generation Task Force.


Leffingwell gave no timetable for the city to sell its share of the coal plant, but that did not necessarily mean it would shut down the plant, only that the city would not be operating a coal-fired energy plant. “Someone else could buy and continue to operate the plant along with the LCRA,” he said.


However, the Sierra Club said in a statement Wednesday that it was proposing a plan to completely phase-out the Fayette facility by 2016. The environmental group has sponsored or been a part of several studies indicating that the plant is the likely source of mercury pollution in a number of Central Texas rivers and lakes.


At the time of Leffingwell’s announcement, no one else has publicly challenged him for a second term. Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole has hinted that she is considering a run for mayor, but has steadfastly avoided making any announcements. The rest of the Council members whose terms are up next year say they plan to run for re-election, and no one from outside city politics has announced any intentions.


In his last mayoral race, Leffingwell ran against then-Mayor Pro Tem Brewster McCracken and former State Comptroller Carol Keeton Strayhorn.


Leffingwell said his other priorities for a second term include a planned November 2012 bond package that will include funds for urban rail, parks and affordable housing projects, as well as changes to the City Charter to bring the council under a system of geographic districts.


The mayor was introduced at his news conference by former State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, and among his supporters at the event was Council Member Mike Martinez.


Leffingwell served on the City Council from 2005 to 2009, before running for mayor. He served as chair of city Environmental Board for five years prior to that. Leffingwell retired from Delta Air Lines after serving as a pilot and airline captain for 32 years. Prior to that, he was an officer and a pilot n the US Navy and served in Vietnam. He is a graduate of the University of Texas.

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