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Power Play

By January 2007Comments

texasmonthly.com: Was this a tough story to write?

S. C. Gwynne: Yes. You start with what seems like a simple idea: “Fight over coal plants.” And you end up deep in the question of where we get our energy from, environmental science, global warming, industrial policy, energy deregulation, etc. To write intelligently about a coal plant, you have to understand many different things and that is what makes it hard—and also what limits the media’s ability, in general, to accurately parse the issue.

texasmonthly.com: How long did it take to complete this story?

SG: I worked on it for several months.

texasmonthly.com: Did it take longer than most stories or longer than you expected?

SG: It took about the normal amount of time to write and report a feature story.

texasmonthly.com: Where did this story idea originate?

SG: The fight over approval of these plants really began in the late spring of 2006 and then accelerated during the summer. The story was in the papers with some frequency, though never at any length and never comprehensively. There was clearly a political fight brewing, and we decided that the time was right—partly anticipating the action in the 2007 Legislature, which begins in January—to do the story.

texasmonthly.com: This type of story is often written as “he said, she said” without drawing conclusions, or by simply vilifying one side and glorifying the other. How did you approach this article differently?

SG: I think I owe it to the reader to try to sort this out, to try to separate truth from fiction. Otherwise, there is no public service. This is an extremely complex issue. People on both sides are making sweeping pronouncements. My job is to try to be an honest broker of that information.

texasmonthly.com: Your lead is unusual, because it directly invokes the reader. How did you decide to begin the article that way?

SG: My original lead set a scene at the Big Brown coal plant, one of the worst polluting plants in the country. In discussions with my editor, we decided that a lead that involved the reader more directly might be better. Sort of: “What happens when you turn on your TV.” So we decided to move the Big Brown section down and put a new lead on. I think it was a good decision, and it is just part of the normal give-and-take between editors and writers.

texasmonthly.com: TXU is already very profitable. Do you think Wilder is exaggerating the risk of experimental technology like IGCC?

SG: There are no existing, commercially viable IGCC plants, so that is a hard question to answer and it is one of the reasons it is so hard to figure out who is right. People are arguing about hypothetical technologies in a hypothetical future. What Wilder is not exaggerating is the idea that IGCC will be largely unknown until the first of such plants come on line in 2012.

texasmonthly.com: After researching this story, do you believe that regulation was a good idea?

SG: It is not working yet in terms of bringing consumer prices down, but we have not really seen what full deregulation looks like. The power industry will be mostly deregulated after January 2007. In the past few years, electricity prices have increased substantially in Texas, mostly due to price increases in natural gas, which accounts for 72 percent of the state’s power. But the supplier-consumer relationship was not fully free and prices were not completely deregulated. In the airline industry, prices came down very quickly for consumers after deregulation. The Texas Legislature spent the better part of a decade deregulating the power business with the same goal in mind. It ought to work. If it doesn’t, we will be back to the old system soon enough.

texasmonthly.com: Your article seems to see the positives and negatives in both TXU’s and the environmentalists’ points of views. How do you think the two camps will react to your analysis?

SG: I don’t know, and I can’t predict that. I try to be fair in my assessments of both sides. I don’t have any agendas here, nor does the magazine I work for. But I am always interested to see how people react because it is often different from what I might have expected.

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