October 2007

'Economic blackmail' fueling power-plant push?

By Gail Binkly

AN HISTORIC HOGAN SITS NEAR THE DRILLING SITE FOR THE PROPOSED DESERT ROCK POWER PLANTBuilding the controversial Desert Rock power plant to boost the Navajo Nation’s economy doesn’t make sense when there are cleaner options for generating energy, says the author of the critically acclaimed “Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future.”

The idea of coal mines and coal-fired power plants as economic boons “was only true 50 years ago when coal was one of the only ways to generate electricity,” Goodell told the Free Press by phone from New York.

“There’s no doubt that power has brought prosperity to regions,” he said. “It’s the juice our economy flows on.” But today there are a lot of other options for generating electricity. “It’s no longer a simple equation of ‘build the power plant for electricity and have jobs, or not’,” Goodell said.

“Big Coal,” published earlier this year, analyzes the coal industry from mining to power plants, as well as the consequences of America’s dependency on the black rocks. The readable, down-to-earth book developed out of an assignment that Goodell, a veteran journalist, was doing for the New York Times Magazine on coal-mining in West Virginia.

Few Americans any longer burn coal in their own homes or have direct contact with the messy substance, but more than half the nation’s electricity is still produced from coal. And the industry touts coal as a means for reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil.

But Goodell argues that planning a future around coal, the most carbonintensive fossil fuel, is insanity in this era of concern about carbon emissions and global warming.

And the idea of building a 1,500- megawatt plant such as Desert Rock in the Four Corners area makes even less sense, he says.

“The really killer thing for New Mexico is there are so many other options, such as large-scale solar installations – things that are arguably as cheap as or cheaper than building a power plant but are pushed aside as a New Age techy thing.”

THE FOUR CORNERS POWER PLANT IN NORTHERN NEW MEXICO IS THE NATION'S NO. 1 EMITTER OF NITROGEN OXIDESGoodell said several solar-thermal facilities are on the books, including one in Arizona, that would create more jobs than coal-fired power plants.

“The idea of throwing up these power plants is all about industrial inertia and the power of these power companies,” he said.

Desert Rock is proposed on the Burnham Chapter of the Navajo Nation about 25 miles southwest of Farmington. It is a joint project of the tribe’s Diné Power Authority and Sithe Global, a private, multinational company based in Houston.

It’s no accident that Desert Rock is being planned in a remote, impoverished area, Goodell said.

“You don’t see a big coal-fired power plant in Beverly Hills and Westchester [County, N.Y.] and Grosse Point, Mich.,” Goodell said. “They put them in places where people can’t afford to fight them, where they’re desperate for jobs, where you don’t have environmental communities organized to fight them. They’re always in poor regions. Nobody else would tolerate them.

“They use that sort of economic blackmail – ‘We’ll bring you jobs, so please allow us to pollute your air and cook the planet for the next 50 years’.”

Desert Rock is expected to create 200 permanent jobs at the plant and another 200 at the Navajo Mine, which would fuel it. Promoters have said the plant will be the cleanest ever built. The plant will produce 3,500 tons of nitrogen oxides and another 3,500 tons of sulfur dioxides annually, Still, Desert Rock would be far less polluting than the nearby power plants, which together spew out some 67,000 tons of nitrogen oxides and 37,000 tons of sulfur dioxide.

Sithe Global also signed an agreement with the tribe May 15 promising to sponsor projects to reduce sulfurdioxide emissions at other power plants or sources near Desert Rock. The total reductions would be 110 percent of the sulfur-dioxide emissions from Desert Rock, meaning emissions would be reduced from their current level.

Goodell said newer coal plants certainly are cleaner than the old ones, such as the notorious Four Corners plant, the No. 1 emitter of nitrogen oxides in the nation.

“But just because you go from 10 quarts of whiskey a week to four doesn’t mean you’re clean and sober,” he said. “When you compare the new plants to the old, yes, they’re cleaner, but when you compare them to actual clean energy like solar and wind and things like that they’re still enormously dirty.

“They still emit tremendous amounts of pollutants and combustion wastes.”

JEFF GOODELLWaste such as fly ash remains a huge problem of coal-fired power plants, Goodell said. “Then you have the impacts from mining, the water depletion.” To reduce its water usage, the plant will use a “dry-cooling” system that cuts water usage by 85 percent, but will still require 4 million gallons a day.

“Clean” in the coal industry’s parlance simply means less-polluting than the plants of the 1960s and 1970s, he said, “but what they don’t tell you is these power-industry guys fought all these mandates for lowering emissions, saying they were going to put people out of work.”

Desert Rock would produce any- where from 100 to 550 pounds of mercury annually, it is estimated. (The Four Corners plant emits about 2,000 pounds.) Mercury levels are already high at numerous area bodies of water.

And it will generate tons of particulates, which are considered a particular threat to public health. Some 15 percent of the population of San Juan County, N.M., is estimated to suffer from lung disease, according to American Lung Association statistics, and numerous Navajos have said that asthma is rampant in areas near the existing plants.

The health risks of breathing pollutants are “as well-established as the impact of smoking,” Goodell said.

And regardless of how much coal-fired plants are able to reduce their emissions of other pollutants, there remains one enormous issue: carbon dioxide.

“That’s the big kahuna,” Goodell said.

Desert Rock would emit some 10.5 million to 13 million tons per year of CO2, a greenhouse gas scientists blame for global warming.

“Frankly, especially for people in New Mexico and the Southwest – you sometimes have to be blunt – it’s almost like a suicide wish, building a coal plant in the Southwest, when you look at all the drought projections and climate-change modeling, which are getting better and better. This is one of the places in the country that’s going to be impacted the most with increased heat and drought. The idea that we can ignore this and continue to throw up coal plants is just crazy. At some point people have to say, ‘No, this is wrong’.”

Because Desert Rock would be on tribal land, the state of New Mexico has no authority to reject or approve it. However, the state legislature last year refused to grant an $85 million tax break that the plant had sought.

Desert Rock has received a draft airquality permit from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but is awaiting the final permit. Public comment is still being taken on a draft environmental impact statement by the Bureau of Indian Affairs that would give the go-ahead to the project.

But the tribe has chosen the design and construction contractor for the plant, Fluor Corp. of Irving, Texas, and is pushing to move forward.

Goodell said that’s because powerindustry operators want to get coal-fired plants approved before Congress passes legislation that taxes carbon-dioxide emissions.

“I think everyone now agrees the next administration is going to pass some sort of Kyoto-like legislation. When that happens, that will change the price of [coal-generated power] in a big way.”

Asked whether such legislation would not surely also tax plants that had been recently approved, Goodell laughed.

“You underestimate the power of our friends in the coal industry,” he said. “One-third of the old coal plants in America still don’t have scrubbers on them. There will be a huge fight for grandfathering.”

Desert Rock is a privately owned plant, not a public utility, he noted, so it is being built purely for profit. The power is expected to be sold mostly out of state.

“If you can get a traditional coal plant built and get it grandfathered, you’re building a gold mine, and it’s no more complex than that,” he said. “They want to push through the cheapest and least risky coal plant they can.”

New technology known as IGCC (integrated gasification combined cycle) offers another option for coalfired electricity. IGCC plants don’t simply burn coal, they use heat and pressure to “cook off the impurities in coal and convert it into a synthetic gas,” Goodell explains in “Big Coal.” The gas is then burned in a turbine.

IGCC plants are nearly as clean-burning as natural-gas plants, he says, plus they offer the option of capturing and storing the carbon dioxide emitted, if a feasible method for doing so is available.

But Desert Rock’s owners have rejected IGCC technology as unproven, although some 10 such plants are being built in the U.S., Goodell said. He said the power industry tends to reject anything different.

“All new technology in their minds is never quite ready,” he said, “and there’s always a reason to keep building the same old power plants.”

But opposition is growing to doing things the same old way.

“This has changed even since I fin- ished my book,” Goodell said. “At the beginning of 2006, there was nobody beating these plants and no real serious opposition, but just in the last six months to a year there’s been a real change.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, in the spring plans were on the books for 150 new coalfired plants nationwide, but many are running into major opposition.

Sen. Majory Leader Harry Reid (DNev.) stated recently, “No new coal plants should be built in my home state or anywhere else on the planet. There is no such thing as clean coal.”

And U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (DCalif.), chair of the House oversight committee, recently asked the EPA not to approve Desert Rock or two other proposed coal-fired plants until it considers the impact of greenhouse-gas emissions on climate change.

Goodell said new coal plants are becoming mired in economic and political difficulties. One is the increasing awareness of global warming, something even President Bush has acknowledged. “This is not some sort of weird left-wing liberal conspiracy to shut down the global economy, it’s a real threat to life as we know it,” Goodell said.

Another problem is that construction costs are soaring because of rising prices for steel and concrete.

Also, there is increasing interest in renewable energy. “Now things are wide open,” Goodell said.

“There is an increasing sense that there is a better way to do things. An incredible amount of money is flowing into clean energy.

“I think all these factors are coming together to make it very clear that coal is the fuel of the past, not the future.”