I am writing today to announce the closure of the New Mexico Independent. After three and a half years of operation in New Mexico, the board of the American Independent News Network, has decided to shift publication of its news…
Desert Rock fuels debate over just how clean coal should be
ALBUQUERQUE–It should come as no surprise that the proposed Desert Rock power plant in New Mexico’s Four Corners region would be a highly contested subject.
Not only is it a coal-fired power plant, it would be the third in a fairly small area that is already a “hot spot” in terms of air quality. Plus, it would emit 10-12 million tons of global warming carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere each year.
And yet, it might possibly also be the “cleanest” coal-fired power plant built to date in the U.S., with additional agreements in place between the company and the Navajo Nation to reduce emissions in the region more broadly.
It utilizes state of the art commercial technology centered on making the use of coal, one of our primary sources of energy, less harmful to human health and the environment. “Less” being the operative word.
Desert Rock would be a “super critical” 1500-megawatt facility on the Navajo Reservation, about 30 miles southwest of Farmington. The Navajo surface coal mine would be expanded to provide coal for the plant, and two transmission lines would be installed to transport the electricity. The company is seeking a 50-year lease on the project.
Super critical technology is a cut above the “subcritical” technology used in older versions of coal burning plants, such as the two already in the region. The primary benefit is an increase in efficiency that requires less coal to be burned for the same amount of electricity. This reduces emissions across the board compared to older technology.
It would also utilize a dry-cooling system that would greatly reduce its water usage, at about 4,500 acre-feet of water per year compared to 22,000 acre-feet for PNM’s nearby San Juan Generating Station.
The granting of an air quality permit in late July by the Environmental Protection Agency brought a long-simmering dispute to a head over whether the project should go forward, with the state of New Mexico announcing it would take the EPA to court to stop the plant’s progress.
Arrayed on one side of the debate are the Navajo Nation, the federal government, and the company–Sithe Global.
On the other are citizen groups, both Navajo and non-Navajo, who live near the proposed plant, larger environmental organizations and the state of New Mexico.
When it granted the air quality permit, the EPA said the Desert Rock facility would be “one of the cleanest pulverized coal-burning power plants in the country,” and then went on to discuss the additional agreements made by the company to reduce emissions in the region:
On top of the most stringent controls in the country, the Desert Rock Energy Facility has entered into an agreement with the Navajo Nation to further reduce sulfur dioxide emissions in the area by generating or purchasing sulfur dioxide credits and retiring them. Under the agreement, the company will also contribute additional funds toward environmental improvement projects that would reduce or prevent air pollution.
Sithe Global spokesman Frank Maisano told the Independent that the plant would have advanced control systems in place to greatly reduce the mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides (NOx) and particulate matter normally associated with coal-fired power plants.
Plus, he said, the company has entered into a voluntary agreement with the Navajo Nation EPA to reduce sulfur dioxide in the region by 110 percent of the emissions put out by the plant. The EPA air quality permit makes compliance with that voluntary agreement a condition, although it doesn’t spell out any of the details within the air permit itself.
“We’re going to either build or pay for a project at another facility to reduce the SOx emissions in the area,” Maisano said. “We may also buy credits on the open market and permanently retire them, to get to a 110 percent reduction in regional SOx emissions. “
Mary Yuhl, Air Quality Bureau Chief at the NM Environment Department, though, told the Independent the primary problem in the Four Corners region isn’t sulfur dioxide, it’s ozone, which the company’s mitigation plans don’t address.
It’s the ozone levels in the region, she said, that are near the maximum when it comes to the National Ambient Air Quality Standard.
“The area is right at the federal standard for ozone, which is a combination of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds. If you emit more NOx you risk exceeding the standard. There will also be additional mercury. We already have a fish consumption advisory for mercury in the Navajo reservoir, which is downwind from the power plants. This is going to exacerbate the problem.”
The NMED recently completed an inventory of mercury emissions that it said shows coal-burning power plants were responsible for 55 percent of the emissions in 2002, with mining activities an additional 17 percent.
Yuhl said reports by the NMED in the past have also shown increased visits to emergency rooms for asthma attacks in the Four Corners region during periods of high ozone levels, as one example of the public health impacts.
Beyond the health threat, being declared in “non-attainment” would also lead to an onerous permitting process for new projects in the region. This makes it difficult to attract new industry, Yuhl said. And, if they can’t get back into attainment or demonstrate a timely plan for doing so, the federal government ultimately could withhold the state’s highway funds.
Hummers and Hybrids
Yuhl’s comments corroborated what Dailon Long had to say. Long is a community organizer with Diné Care, a Navajo environmental organization. Long lives in Burnham, the rural, primarily Navajo community near the proposed plant.
The assertion that the Desert Rock plant won’t have a negative effect on air quality adds insult to injury, Long told the Independent.
“We live with the yellow plumes hanging in the air everyday, not to mention a pervasive oil and gas industry. We aren’t stupid,” he said. “If you have two Hummers running in your garage, and you add a hybrid—it may not add a Hummer’s worth of emissions, but it still worsens an already pretty bad situation.”
When asked why the Navajo Nation leaders supported the plant, Long said that changing perceptions is a slow process. For the Navajo Nation, he said, coal has been a revenue source for a long time and it’s a habit that’s hard to break, even though new economic opportunities are emerging in the renewable energy sector that could replace it.
“Coal is so instilled in the economic thinking that its like a drug,” he said. “Weaning yourself off of it doesn’t happen overnight.”
Indeed, the economic benefit to the Navajo Nation is placed front and center in the arguments for building the plant. The project’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement acknowledges that surrounding the plant lives a disproportionately low-income, Navajo community. Both the company and Navajo Nation leaders point this out as well. Jobs as well as royalties of $45-50 million to the Navajo Nation are seen as a major argument for building the plant. They do not emphasize, however, the corresponding disproportionate environmental burden on the surrounding community.
A relatively new dimension to environmental debates over the citing of industrial facilities is the question of climate change.
In the press release announcing the lawsuit to block the EPA air quality permit, NMED Secretary Ron Curry said the plant would increase the region’s greenhouse gas emissions by more than one third and “wipe out” the state’s efforts to reduce those emissions statewide.
And Jim Norton, environmental protection director for the NMED, told the Independent that a coal-fired power plant anywhere in the state would pose a problem for both the long-term goals of the state and the regional Western Climate Initiative for greenhouse gas reduction — unless the potential plant used “clean coal” sequestration technology to capture the CO2 and inject it into the ground.
Both the company and the Draft EIS discuss global warming in the vein that while evidence points to climate change as the culprit, it’s still debatable. The Sithe Global website highlights that CO2 is “just one” of many factors:
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is one of several greenhouse gases that is part of the natural greenhouse effect that makes the Earth have a habitable temperature. Man-made sources of CO2 make up only 3% of global CO2 emissions (source: U.S. Department of Energy) and are just one of many factors at work in determining the Earth’s climate.
In this context, the company didn’t include newer clean coal technologies in alternatives studied for the EIS, saying they were not commercially viable and that one in particular, IGCC coal gasification technology, wouldn’t reduce emissions much, if any, beyond the Desert Rock plant anyway. The company says that as carbon sequestration technology comes on line, the Desert Rock plant could be retrofitted for it, but does not make commitments to do so.
And the company isn’t alone in not prioritizing CO2 as a concern. In fact, while the EPA addresses a laundry list of air pollutants in the permit, it doesn’t even mention carbon dioxide.
This suggests a schism exists on the topic of climate change. While it may seem that a general consensus has emerged about the value of doing everything possible to reign in CO2 emissions—evidenced by the prominent lip service given by the two presidential campaigns—it’s clearly not a consensus that has become embraced by the coal industry, or all governing bodies for that matter.
Editor’s note: This is part two of a report examining the concept of “clean coal.”