Coal's gasping on the Colorado Plateau


“Here in the U.S., I’m happy to say, the king is dead,” said New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg this week. “Coal is a dead man walking.”

While the statistics seem to back up Bloomberg’s statements -- coal production is in decline, and natural gas is taking up an ever growing slice of the electricity generation mix -- it's not always easy to see the demise of coal in the West, where mines continue to kick out millions of tons of coal per day, and power plants still favor coal over other sources for power production. Yet, in the Four Corners -- an area that has long been coal-burning central in the West -- there are vague signs that coal may be on its way out.

The Four Corners Power Plant in February.

Take the Four Corners Power Plant, one of the flagships of what Charles Wilkinson called the Big Buildup -- the massive construction of infrastructure, from dams to power plants -- on the plateau. It was constructed in the mid-1960s on a barren piece of tribal land in northwestern New Mexico above the San Juan River, right next to a giant seam of coal just inside the boundaries of the Navajo Nation. It displaced dozens of Navajo families from homes and grazing lands, and in the early days, the smoke from its stacks became notorious as one of the only man-made objects visible to orbiting astronauts. A few years later, the San Juan Generating Station went up just eight miles away, on the other side of the San Juan River, on non-reservation land.

Together, the two plants sullied the once-clear air enough to ignite a regional environmental movement, which, with the help of the newly passed Clean Air Act, succeeded in getting the stacks cleaned up somewhat with the help of scrubbers. But the coal-burning and the stack-spewing continued, as did the dumping of millions of tons of coal combustion waste onto the land, and in some cases the water, surrounding the plants. The last few decades have been a volley between the plants’ operators and environmentalists: The Sierra Club and Grand Canyon Trust sues one or both for air quality violations, and the plants pay a fine, or incrementally improve their pollution controls.

Recently, however, the increments have grown into giant leaps. Last year, Four Corners’ operator, Arizona Public Service, under pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency, agreed to shut down three of its five units at the end of 2012. Today, those stacks sit smokeless, signaling a significant drop in emissions. Then, in mid-February, after a lot of stalling, San Juan Generating Station’s operator, Public Service Company of New Mexico, reached an agreement with the state to shut down two of its four units by 2017, in addition to installing new pollution controls.

San Juan Generating Station with cornfields.

There are other signs of trouble for Colorado Plateau coal on the horizon. In February, the Modesto Irrigation District, a part-owner of one of San Juan Generating Station’s units, announced it would stop buying power from the plant. Just a few days later, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said the city would rid itself of coal power by 2025. That deals a huge blow to Navajo Generating Station near Page, Ariz., from which the city gets most of its coal power. The fate of that plant was being debated even before Villaraigosa’s bombshell.

The question of whether to phase-out coal-burning is especially complicated in these cases by the particular economic implications of doing so. Four Corners and the accompanying Navajo Mine together make up one of the region’s major employers, and many of the workers are Navajo. Nearby Shiprock, N.M., has one of the highest concentrations of Native Americans living in poverty in the nation, a status that will only be exacerbated by layoffs at the plant and mine. The mine also pays royalties to the Navajo Nation, and actually gives coal to Navajos who burn it for cooking and heating. The situation is similar at Navajo Generating Station. Though San Juan Generating Station sits off the reservation, many of its employees are Navajo, as well.

To try to hang onto some of those jobs, and as part of its effort to take control of its own energy destiny, the Navajo Nation is actually considering buying the Navajo Mine from BHP Billiton. That would also secure the coal supply to Four Corners Power Plant.

Given the fact that coal’s fate is in doubt, the Navajos may want to take a different, cleaner tact. California’s exodus from Colorado Plateau coal should free up valuable space on the huge transmission lines strung out from the plants to the West. That would give a possible conduit for getting, say, wind or solar power from the Four Corners to California (if Cali backed off on its prohibition on renewable imports). Lack of transmission, after all, is one of the biggest barriers to developing utility-scale renewables. And, as the windsurfers at Morgan Lake -- the cooling reservoir for Four Corners Power Plant -- will tell you: Wind and sunshine are plentiful around here.

Photos of Four Corners Power Plant and San Juan Generating Station are by the author.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. His Twitter handle is @jonnypeace.

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