A desert divide grows over power plants

In Arizona and Nevada, new electric plants are aimed partly at California users. Critics say the environmental cost will be high.

When Dale Borger steps into his backyard, he wants to experience two things Arizona is famous for: fresh air and blue sky. But like others in this growing Phoenix suburb, he worries both will disappear if plans to expand a nearby power plant are successful.

"There are 21 schools within a three-mile radius of this one plant. The company is willing to put children at risk," he says, citing pollution concerns, "so they can make money selling electricity to California."

That company is the Salt River Project, a major power provider to metropolitan Phoenix. It says the plant will not put residents at risk and that it will serve Arizona customers, though a spokesman concedes that surplus power could be sold to California.

This local controversy is emblematic of a regionwide debate. Across Arizona and Nevada, more than two dozen new power plants are planned. Critics say they are aimed largely at California consumers - and will harm the local environment.

This desert drama, as it happens, exemplifies several hotly debated aspects of President Bush's national energy strategy. That plan, unveiled last week, calls for stepped-up building of new power plants: as many as 1,900 in three decades. To pave the way, it also would streamline site approval for new plants. And it sets free-market economics, not regulation, as the rule guiding supply and demand.

While supporters say such steps are the best way to ease energy shortfalls like California's, critics say moves like streamlined permits will benefit big business while leaving nearby residents out of the loop.

"This is like a new California gold rush," says Steve Brittle, president of the environmental group Don't Waste Arizona. "This whole trend is going in absolutely the wrong direction."

In Arizona and Nevada, as in states around the country, utilities are operating in an increasingly deregulated environment. Now, California's shortfalls have helped spark a surge in planned generating facilities in neighboring states. By 2003, the new generators in Arizona alone could provide enough electricity for 20 million people - even though the state population hovers between 5 million and 6 million.

While state officials say they are scrutinizing each new facility, critics say utilities will profit from California's shortage, while polluting the Southwest's air and draining its water.

Less-cumbersome permitting procedures are one key reason for the building boom. In Arizona, for example, generators can be up and running in as few as three years, compared with five to seven in California.

In addition, land tends to be cheaper than in California, encouraging power companies to site their plants there. Also, a major natural-gas pipeline from Texas runs through parts of Arizona, reducing expenses such as those for installing new lines.

As a result, Nevada has 10 power plants on the drawing boards, and Arizona has 20 either in planning or construction.

"Old power plants here could be retired or taken out of service," and replaced by the cleaner-burning new plants, says Heather Murphy, spokeswoman for the Arizona Corporation Commission, which regulates Arizona utilities. She adds that more power supply means more "incentives for companies to sell power as cheaply as they can."

But near the Arizona-California border, many residents see it differently. In Kingman, locals have protested a new power plant that will pump 8.4 million gallons of water a day from their aquifer. And environmentalists in southern Arizona are opposing a $1 billion plant proposed within the boundaries of the new Ironwood National Monument near Tucson.

"The plant is completely unnecessary for Arizona's power needs, and will foul our air and use vast quantities of our precious groundwater," says Jon Shumaker, who leads opposition to the facility.

The utility commission has faced at least three lawsuits.

Two have been settled out of court, with plant owners guaranteeing power to Arizona users during peak periods for the next two years. The third suit, which questions the legality of Arizona's plan to remove price caps in 2004, is still pending.

Meanwhile, Arizona officials say they've tightened review procedures for the new plants. When the Corporation Commission approved one generator last month, it included tough air-quality standards like coastal California's.

The sheer number of new generators under review has strained resources at the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. "Plants meant to serve state residents are given priority," says deputy director Richard Tobin, adding that the agency isn't shy about "holding the utility companies' feet to the fire."

Arizona Gov. Jane Hull (R), meanwhile, has appointed a special energy coordinator to work closely with state agencies.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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