King coal is back

With natural gas supplies stretched thin, and the Bush administration loosening environmental regulations, energy companies are turning their attention back to coal

  • Future home of a coal-fired power plant? Sevier County, Utah


SIGURD, UTAH — Jadie Houchin describes herself as a “mouthy stay-at-home mom.” Still, it’s surprising to hear her opinion of the coal-fired power plant planned a mile from her home in this small central Utah town. After all, the plant would create as many as 150 well-paying jobs in an area that could sorely use them, and it is touted as one of the most technologically advanced, cleanest-burning plants around.

“It’s bull crap,” says Houchin. “I don’t care how much technology you have, you’re still burning coal.”

If Nevco Energy Co. has its way, a 270-megawatt power plant could be Houchin’s neighbor as soon as 2008. The company, which is based in the Salt Lake bedroom community of Bountiful, says the plant will burn coal from a nearby mine, using a technology called “circulating fluidized bed combustors” that sharply reduces most emissions, compared to older coal plants.

Still, as angry residents like Houchin and members of the newly formed Sevier County Citizens for Clean Air and Water point out, the plant will release 1,278 tons of carbon monoxide, 1,066 tons of nitrogen oxides and 234 tons of sulfur oxide annually. That pollution could sully the air in nearby Capitol Reef National Park and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Critics also resent the fact that they will have to deal with the bulk of the pollution, while the electricity goes to California and Nevada.

Until earlier this year, the last time a coal plant of any significant size came on line in the West was 1984, but thanks to the rising cost of natural gas and the looser regulatory environment in Washington, D.C., coal is suddenly hot again. Upwards of 40 proposals are now on the table for new or expanded coal-fired plants, from eastern Montana to central Arizona.

All of this is re-igniting antagonism between environmentalists and the utility and mining industries. Environmentalists argue that the push for coal is little more than a knee-jerk reaction to a looming gas shortage. But utilities say the West’s vast coal reserves make coal the best and least-expensive way to meet the region’s growing demand for power.

A short-sighted energy policy

It would be easy to place the blame for coal’s comeback on California. The state’s energy deregulation debacle and subsequent energy crisis in 2001 touched off a round of new natural gas plants throughout the West. Dozens of new plants came on line, causing the demand for natural gas to soar — and the price has risen accordingly, sending utilities in search of alternatives such as coal.

But the resurgence of coal was inevitable, says Janet Gellici, executive director of the Colorado-based American Coal Council, an industry advocacy group. While the West isn’t short of energy today, increasing demand means the region will start to run short around 2008, unless new sources are developed, she says. “Basically, the pendulum has swung so far to the natural gas side that we won’t be able to meet future needs.”

Other industry insiders confide that energy companies saw the gas shortage coming. But rather than turning to alternative energy, they encouraged the crisis, knowing that it could revive coal, which utilities have shied away from in the last 20 years, because of tighter regulations. President Bush’s energy policy just adds fuel to the fire. The 1,700-page document details the upcoming emission requirements that should make coal a safe bet again, says Gellici. It also includes tax breaks for utilities using coal, and millions of dollars for large-scale coal plants in the Great Plains and Midwest.

While environmentalists concede that, with the right technology, coal can be burned cleanly, they call the energy plan short-sighted. Compared to older plants, the new high-tech coal plants, such as the one proposed for Utah, produce smaller amounts of pollutants like sulfur oxide. But they would still pump out almost as much carbon dioxide (CO2) — the main contributor to climate change.

“I think it’s reasonable that, in the next 10 years, you’re going to start to see some effort to regulate CO2,” says John Nielsen, energy project director for Western Resource Advocates. Retrofitting coal plants to cut CO2 would be extremely expensive and the costs would likely be borne by rate-payers, he says. “We have to consider if it really makes sense to build another round of conventional coal plants, with the risk involved to the environment, the customer and the economy long-term.”

Bridge to nowhere?

But proposals for new coal plants continue to pop up all over the West. In Helena, Mont., Patrick Judge, the energy policy director for the Montana Environmental Information Center, says, “There is a fear up here that we are becoming a kind of sacrifice zone for the rest of the nation.” As many as nine coal plants are being proposed in Montana, a state that, Judge says, “is already a net exporter of electrical energy.”

Wyoming saw a 90-megawatt plant come on line outside of Gillette in February 2003, and there are plans for more plants at the same site. Several Wyoming counties are competing for a super high-tech plant, sponsored by the federal government, that could act as a prototype for future “zero-emissions” coal plants. Colorado has proposals for at least three new plants, including one outside of Rangely that would burn waste coal. New Mexico and Arizona both have proposals on the table. Utah has proposals for expanding two existing plants, in addition to the new plant in Sigurd.

The Sigurd plant offers an acceptable way to meet rising energy demands while utilities make the transition to cleaner sources of power, says Pat Shea, a former director of the Bureau of Land Management under President Clinton and now a Salt Lake attorney representing Nevco. “This plant will be a bridge going from less-clean fossil fuels to cleaner burning technology,” he says.

But environmentalists see it as a bridge to nowhere. Barth, Nielsen and other critics are pushing for energy conservation, and for greater use of the alternative energy sources the West also has in abundance, such as wind, solar and geothermal.

But the Sigurd coal plant, and others like it, just got a boost from former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt. His first major policy decision as the new director of the federal Environmental Protection Agency was to propose loosening the restrictions on mercury and nickel emissions from coal- and oil-fired power plants.

The author writes from Salt Lake City, Utah.

Western Resource Advocates formerly the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies, 303-444-1188,

American Coal Council 303-431-1456,

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