The coal rush
National power plant frenzy comes to Four Corners

SideStory: Taking Desert Rock to the top

A small mountain of coal waits at the ready at the D&SNG Depot. Coal is currently on an upward track throughout the nation thanks to a major rush to build new coal-fired power plants. More than 114 new plants have been pitched across the country, and three different proposals, including the contentious Desert Rock Power Plant, have recently been aired for the Four Corners region./Photo by David Halterman

by Will Sands

A black cloud seems to be settling over the Four Corners and the entire nation. A “coal rush” has taken shape both locally and nationally as energy companies press for new, coal-fired power plants in the face of sterner regulations. While this rush could mean as many as three new plants for the Four Corners, activists are optimistic that the tides are beginning to turn.

Coal-fired power plants are currently responsible for supplying approximately half of the United States,’ energy with more than 500 power plants converting the dirty fuel into electricity. Emissions from these plants have been spotlighted as harming public health, polluting waters and fouling skies. At the same time, conservationists consistently claim that coal is one of the dirtiest and least efficient sources of energy available.

Despite these facts, more than 114 new coal-fired power plants are currently proposed throughout the U.S. This “coal rush,” the biggest wave of coal-fired power plant construction since the 1970s, is also riding atop a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign.

“The coal-industry marketing machine is working overtime to convince Americans that coal is the magic solution to our energy needs,” said Alice McKeown, the Sierra Club’s coal specialist. “Despite claims of ‘clean coal’ and ‘carbon free’ coal, the old, dirty practices of the coal industry haven’t changed.”

In addition, opponents charge that industry is attempting to get in before the regulatory door closes. They note that stricter emission standards are imminent, and companies are merely trying to gain approval for and build plants before new standards are put in place. “Anywhere there are coal reserves, there’s a push to put new coal-fired power plants in place,” said Mike Eisenfeld, San Juan Citizens Alliance’s New Mexico organizer. “But there’s also a lot more to coal-fired power than economics. A lot of these power plants that are being pitched as ‘clean coal’ are not clean. And who’s going to pay for the carbon tax of something that will be a major source of pollution and will have to be addressed at a later date.”

Locally, the San Juan Basin has rich coal reserves. BHP Billiton currently operates the Navajo, La Plata and San Juan Mines and both the Ute Mountain and Southern Ute Indian tribes have coal mining operations. As a result, there are two coal-fired power plants in the region – the Four Corners Power Plant and San Juan Generating Station – which operate just west of Farmington in close proximity to the mines. The plants already have poor track records, earning consistent low marks for pollution. In fact, the Four Corners Power Plant was recently cited as the worst nitrogen oxide polluter in the nation, despite recent retrofits.

In spite of this history, more coal-fired power and emissions could also be on the horizon for the Four Corners. The widely publicized Desert Rock Power Plant, a $3 billion facility which would be among the largest coal-fired plants in the nation, has been proposed within a 15-mile radius of the other two plants.

“The Desert Rock Plant is directly associated with a major expansion of the Navajo Mine,” Eisenfeld noted. “There is a lot of behind-the-scenes scheming that goes on with these power plants.”

If completed, Desert Rock would generate enough energy for 1.5 million homes and add a third, major point-source of pollution to the Four Corners region. The fight for local air quality is also not likely to end with Desert Rock. Two other power plants have been proposed for the region but are waiting on the “back burner.”

Peabody Coal, one of the largest energy players in the nation, has proposed a coal-fired plant, one-fifth the size of Desert Rock, between Farmington and Grants, N.M. The Mustang Plant has suffered numerous delays throughout the years and was originally expected to be operational by 2005. The plant is once again in the background, though San Juan Citizens Alliance and other watchdogs fear it will resurface in coming years.

Similarly, BHP Billiton, owner of the Four Corners mine monopoly, has proposed its own power plant, known as the Cottonwood Energy Center. Like Desert Rock, the plant also would be located on the Navajo Reservation and operate on coal from the Navajo Mine. While BHP Billiton originally wanted to have the plant operational by 2009, Cottonwood is currently playing second fiddle to Desert Rock. Should the Desert Rock plant fall through, SJCA expects the Cottonwood Energy Center to come back onto the playing field.

“The energy industry claims there’s an incredible need for new power,” Eisenfeld said. “My opinion is that there will continue to be a wave of proposals. I think industry is playing a game where they’re just trying to get a permit anywhere.”

While these facts may seem bleak, Eisenfeld and others currently see great hope as public sentiment swings back against the coal rush. He pointed to the current controversy surrounding Desert Rock as evidence of the trend.

“Our communities have started to recognize what’s going on here,” Eisenfeld said. “The same thing is beginning to take place all over the West. People are recognizing how power is developed and what the true cost is going to be.”

That awareness is also beginning to trickle upstream to Washington, D.C., where stricter emission standards get more and more play in Congress. “Is there going to be federal legislation saying you can’t emit carbon dioxide? That seems to be where we’re heading,” Eisenfeld said. “But the energy companies are also trying to turn it around and say new legislation will hurt the consumer.”

Whatever happens on high, San Juan Citizens Alliance has come up with a compromise for the Four Corners region. Noting that the two existing plants are already among the dirtiest in the nation, Eisenfeld suggested, “There is a fair amount of coal in the Four Corners. But there’s no reason any new coal-fired plants should be proposed down here until some of the dated, polluting, old plants are closed down.” •



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