« Return to this article

Know the West

It's time to abandon Desert Rock


There's a lot at stake when it comes to energy development in New Mexico: the state's crystalline blue skies, job opportunities for native people, and a sustainable future for all of those living in the land of little rain.

Yet when it comes to weighing in on the proposed Desert Rock coal-fired power plant, New Mexico's most powerful Democratic lawmakers offer little leadership. Desert Rock is a joint project of Sithe Global and the Navajo Nation; plans are for building a 1,500 megawatt coal-fired power plant in northwestern New Mexico, a region that's home to two existing coal-fired power plants and tens of thousands of oil and gas wells. In the town of Farmington and the rural areas around it, residents already suffer from air quality problems that are reminiscent of Houston or Los Angeles.

It's probably no surprise that former Republican Sen. Pete Domenici R, enthusiastically supported Desert Rock, but the positions of Democratic Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall don't jibe with the environmental reputations both men have cultivated. Bingaman and Udall received high marks from the nonprofit League of Conservation Voters, and they've made the phrase "green jobs" a part of their vocabulary. Bingaman champions climate change legislation, and most recently, he helped create fiscal incentives for companies pursuing carbon-capture technology.

But when it comes to Desert Rock, Bingaman demurs, saying he has no control over a coal plant destined for sovereign soil. Udall, meanwhile, says he supports the project as an opportunity for economic development, though he says he hopes the power plant will employ "carbon-reducing technologies."

Meanwhile, on the Navajo Reservation, a small band of protesters continues to occupy the camp they established in December 2006, to block workers from entering the site. Opposition continues to grow: The more she spreads information about Desert Rock, says Elouise Brown, president of the reservation's resistance group Dooda Desert Rock, the more people come out against it.  

Desert Rock would be a major polluter, emitting 12.7 million metric tons of greenhouse gases each year. It would also release mercury, ozone, sulfates, nitrates, carbon monoxide and both fine and large particulate matter. Sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter are all associated with asthma, pulmonary disease, increased rates of heart attack and stroke; elevated levels of mercury are associated with birth defects and developmental delays.

Despite the tribal government's insistence that the plant represents an economic boon -- Sithe Global has promised the tribe $50 million in annual revenues -- financing the building of Desert Rock remains hazy. The Navajo Nation must pony up between 25 and 49 percent of the plant's $4 billion price tag. The Navajo Nation is also expected to foot the bill for a transmission line sending the power to markets in Arizona and California, though the tribe is reportedly considering asking the federal government for financial assistance.

There could be another hitch: If the federal government implements carbon taxes, the tribe could be stuck with the bill for spending millions of dollars to revamp Desert Rock's pollution controls. And now, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's appeals board has decided to take a second look at scientific and legal issues opponents have raised over the plant.

As for Gov. Bill Richardson -- no longer headed to Washington, D.C. -- he could take this opportunity to rectify issues of environmental and economic justice within New Mexico. He campaigned for president on a platform ofclean energy, and here at home he could employ his famed negotiating skills to work with the Navajo on a new economic direction, one based not on the antiquated fossil-fuel industry, but instead on alternative means ofproducing power.

The state's Democratic senators are also well placed to help the Navajo Nation change course. Sen. Tom Udall sits on the Committee on Environmentand Public Works, while Bingaman chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Surely these three powerful Democrats -- Richardson, Udall and Bingaman -- can figure out ways to protect the region's public health while also fighting to end poverty on the Navajo reservation.

Of course, there are no easy answers, whether it's to address global climate change, create a sustainable energy future or to solve the long-term problems the Navajo Nation faces. But a good start for New Mexico lawmakers would be to stop promising change on the campaign trail while refusing to face the grim realities of Desert Rock.

Laura Paskus is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She splits her time between Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Paonia, Colorado.