Two weeks in the West

  • A massive dragline works in the Navajo Mine in northwestern New Mexico, scraping thousands of tons of coal from the earth each month to burn at the Four Corners Power Plant. The proposed Desert Rock power plant would sit nearby


"I pray that this power plant won't be built," Louise Benally told the crowd in the Burnham Chapter House - a sort of Navajo version of a town hall - on July 24. Benally and more than two dozen others, mostly Navajo men in big cowboy hats and older women in velveteen dresses and turquoise, spoke against the plant in their native language, punctuated by English words like "climate change," "megawatts," "greed," and "Alternative A."

Alternative A is the "no action" option for the coal-fired Desert Rock Power Plant, which would churn out power for more than a million homes, mostly in Nevada and Arizona. Its smokestack would rise up from the desert just five miles north of Burnham, N.M. Whether Benally's prayers will be answered remains to be seen, but her doubts about coal power seem to be spreading far beyond the Navajo Reservation: Over the past weeks, coal has taken big hits, from Wall Street all the way to Hollywood Boulevard.

Major coal company stocks fell after Citigroup urged investors to put their money into other energy sources and metals, saying coal companies are "perceived as landscape-disfiguring, global warming bad guys" and mourning the fact that "prophesies of a new wave of coal-fired generation have vaporized."

One such vaporization occurred when six municipalities in the greater Los Angeles area put the kibosh on plans to build a 900-megawatt addition to the Intermountain Power Project in Utah. The California cities have veto power because, combined, they buy 75 percent of the plant's electricity.

And in Nevada, a first: A politician shows scruples. Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader, said he'll do "everything I can" to stop three coal-fired plants from being built in his state, including one proposed by Sithe Global Power, the company behind Desert Rock. Though Reid acknowledged that it might be smarter for him, politically, to support the plants, he said his "conscience wouldn't let me."

Back in New Mexico, Desert Rock still seems on the path to being built: Navajo Nation officials - who hope to buy into the plant - like it because of the economic boost it will provide, and because it will spew fewer pollutants and use less water than most existing plants of its size. But now Desert Rock has a more powerful opponent than just a handful of pissed-off neighbors. Democratic presidential candidate and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson spoke against the proposal in July, saying that each new conventional coal power plant "is a step backward."

Shortly after the Burnham hearing began, the electricity cut out, killing the lights and the public address system. Electricity was quickly restored - from the sun, not from coal: A hearing participant happened to have his solar generator on hand.

If the sun alone can't power the world when coal is forced to retire, there's always nuclear. A provision in the energy bill just passed by the Senate could be a boon for companies hoping to build nuclear reactors. The bill gives the Department of Energy power to approve unlimited loan guarantees for all clean power, which could include nuclear, since it doesn't directly emit greenhouse gases.

In other nuclear news, Department of Energy officials announced that the cleanup of Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington is progressing nicely. Meanwhile, workers on that project were told to "take cover" in late July when a pipe spilled between 50 and 100 gallons of highly radioactive waste. A study recently found that Los Alamos National Laboratory released nearly 60 times more plutonium just after World War II than previously believed. And Rocky Flats, the former nuke facility in Colorado, has officially become a wildlife refuge.

Almost as hot as plutonium: The real estate market in and around Aspen, Colo., where residential home sales are on pace to set a new record. Considering that the U.S. is in a housing slump, and that Colorado has the second-highest foreclosure rate in the nation, this boom may seem surprising. But it also indicates who's sailing unscathed through the current economic crosswinds. Apparently, the rich are still holding their own, since they're the ones who are buying up the Aspen area's multimillion dollar homes. The energy industry also seems to be thriving, since the "down valley" portion of the Aspen market, smack-dab in the middle of the gas and oil boom, is doing quite well.

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