Before regulation hits, a battle over how to build new US coal plants

A half-hour car ride south of Farmington, N.M., a modest trailer sits atop a small rise in the spectacular landscape of mesas and upward-jutting rock formations. Known as Ram Springs to the locals, the hill is on the eastern edge of the Navajo Nation, a West Virginia-size tract of land spread across New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. A stenciled cloth hanging out front reads "Doodá Desert Rock." Desert Rock is a proposed 1,500-megawatt coal-fired power plant being sited nearby. "Doodá" (pronounced "DO-da") means "no" in Navajo – emphatically no.

Worried about pollution and the prospect of getting pushed off their land if the power plant is allowed to be built, a group of Navajo, or Diné – "the people" in their native language – "sit vigil" on this windblown hilltop day after day. The protest group, now joined by a coalition of religious and environmental organizations, spotlights the growing national debate over the direction of US energy production. It's a pivotal moment; the human hand in global warming has gained increased recognition, but carbon regulations have yet to be put in place.

As America's appetite for energy grows, environmentalists and some lawmakers argue that new coal-fired plants should use the newest – albeit more expensive – technology available to keep coal-produced pollutants in check. But some in the power industry counter that guessing about future regulations and investing in new, largely untested technology is no way to run a business.

The fact is, demand for energy in the United States is projected to increase 1.1 percent each year through 2030. Economists say cheap and abundant energy is necessary to maintain a vibrant and healthy economy. Faced with ever higher oil prices and possessing ample reserves – more than any other single country – the obvious choice for the US is coal, say experts.

Indeed, there are some 150 proposed coal-fired plants across the country, according to the National Energy Technology Laboratory. But the vast majority of these plants, Desert Rock included, utilize what critics call "old" technology – pulverized coal (PC), rather than the technology known as Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC), which captures pollutants more efficiently.

Nationwide, the proposed plants are receiving scrutiny from lawmakers concerned with climate change as well as from citizens who would live near them. The utilities industry finds itself caught "on the horns of a dilemma" about how to proceed before regulations are in place, says Bruce Driver, an independent water and energy consultant in Boulder, Colo.

For their part, the majority of elected Navajo Nation officials support the $2.5 billion Desert Rock plant. They say it will bring much-needed jobs – 1,000 during construction and 400 upon completion – to an area with 43 percent unemployment.

"It's considered to be the largest single economic development anywhere in native America," says George Hardeen, communications director for Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr., who supports the project. "It's going to provide jobs for everyone from the engineers to the burrito lady."

But opponents say enough is enough. The Four Corners area already hosts three power plants. A brown haze often hangs over the region on still days. The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish has issued advisories not to eat fish caught in area lakes and streams because of high mercury content. (In the US, emissions from coal plants account for one-third of all human-released mercury and 34 percent of all CO2 emissions.) Health officials note that the nitrogen oxides, ozone, and particulates that spew from coal-fired plants are known respiratory irritants. And the Desert Rock plant will emit some 10,500 metric tons of CO2 annually, an amount equal to what New Mexico governor and presidential hopeful Bill Richardson has pledged to remove from the state's emissions by 2012.

"We've become an energy sacrifice zone for the country because of our natural-gas reserves, coal, and uranium," says Mike Eisenfeld, the New Mexico staff organizer of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, a social and environmental organization opposed to the project.

Carbon issues aside, Sithe Global Power, co-owner of the proposed Desert Rock plant with the Navajo-owned Diné Power Authority, has responded to at least some of these concerns in a voluntary emissions-reduction plan that it says would make Desert Rock operate 10 times cleaner than existing plants in the area. As for carbon, if and when "carbon capture" technology becomes available, the plant will be easily retrofittable.

"We have done our best to be a good neighbor," says Frank Maisano, spokesman for Sithe Global. In the meantime, Southwestern markets need some 2,300 megawatts' worth of energy and the Navajo Nation is eager to exploit its vast coal reserves, he says. "The Four Corners region can't afford to wait," he says.

But some say this approach ignores the reality of global warming and the eventuality of carbon regulation and lower caps on mercury emissions. Pulverized coal is a "mature" technology, says John Nielsen, energy program director at Western Resource Advocates, an environmental nonprofit in Boulder, and it has most likely reached its full potential.

IGCC, on the other hand, is ahead of the curve. Even now, the capture of pollutants is much more efficient and cost-effective in IGCC, which removes them before reaching the combustion chamber rather than scrubbing them from the exhaust. And although IGCC plants are 15 to 20 percent more expensive to build than PC plants, if regulation comes into play, scrambling to retrofit a PC plant may prove more expensive than having initially built an IGCC plant, says Mr. Nielsen.

Others see something more sinister at work in the nationwide rush to build PC plants: an industry attempt to get cheaper, "dirtier," facilities on the ground before Congress puts carbon regulations in place. "The barn door is open now, and a lot of facilities are trying to get in before it closes," says Denise Fort, a law professor at the University of New Mexico School of Law in Albuquerque.

At least two lawmakers seem to agree. In a Jan. 19 editorial in The Dallas Morning News, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D) of New Mexico and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California, both of whom chair powerful Senate environmental committees, issued what amounted to a stern warning: Utilities building plants with old technology should not assume they will be "grandfathered in" when carbon regulations arrive.

Inside the trailer, a handful of Navajo elders alternately chat, doze, and talk with a reporter around a propane heater. Most speak some English, but all prefer to express themselves on this contentious issue through an interpreter in their native tongue. For them, the issue is simple. Yes, jobs would be nice, but at what cost?

"It's just going to mess up all our land," says Lucy Willie. "This is our land to live on. Where are we going to move? Where are we going to stay?"

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