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Earth Notes

Desert Rock, Coal & Climate Change

By Daniel Kraker

Burnham, NM – Host intro:
Across the country demand for electricity is soaring. And while utilities are relying more on renewable energy sources like solar and wind to meet that demand, coal is still king. There are some 150 coal fired power plants on the drawing board across the country, including several on the Colorado Plateau. But not everyone is thrilled about the prospect of coal playing an important role in meeting our future energy needs. From KNAU's Indian Country News Bureau, Daniel Kraker takes us to a place where people have lived next to coal fired power plants for decades. And now they're trying to stop another one from being built.

South of Farmington, New Mexico, the Navajo reservation is a spectacular other-worldly landscape of mesas and giant sandstone rock formations jutting out of the red earth. Underneath the ground is a 200 year supply of coal. This is where the Navajo government and a company called Sithe Global Power want to build a 15 hundred megawatt power plant called Desert Rock. And it's here where a small group of Navajos opposing the project has set up their base of resistance.

1:52 it's called Dooda Desert Rock, Dooda means no in Navajo.

That's Elouise Brown, president of the group that's been camped out at the proposed construction site since December. They've built a small plywood shack attached to a trailer. In the middle squats a giant wood stove. Brown says she's quit her day job to protest the project full-time.

I think this whole coal plant is just, people are just looking at dollar signs. They don't care about their people, they don't care about their mother earth, global warming And I think it's about time that we be heard, we're going to stand here and stay here until somebody listens to us.

SFX: ambi of walking outside, her son talking in the background

Brown walks outside the shack with her son and grandfather, Julius Gilmore. He points out in Navajo where the power plant would go.

2:00 Gilmore talking in Navajo, boy in background, Elouise, you see the drill down there? it's just northeast of there DK: And that's your grandfather's house right there? Elouise: Yes.

Brown's grandparents have spent their entire life there. If the plant is built they say they'll have to be relocated.

From the protestors' camp the snowcapped San Juans are visible on the horizon mountains the Navajo hold sacred. Also visible are the tips of two giant smokestacks. The Four Corners and San Juan Generating Stations, two coal plants built in the 1970s on either side of the city of Farmington. That was during the last major wave of coal plant construction. Desert Rock could be part of the next wave. 40 new plants across the country could start up in the next five years. Frank Maisano is a spokesman for Desert Rock.

Already in the region there is 23 hundred megawatts of new requests for power, that is just to satisfy massive growth in the region right now. Those who say oh we just won't use coal, they're not looking at the larger picture, which says we really do have to have a balanced approach, not just that we don't like this one little carbon dioxide emission that comes from this plant.

Maisano says Desert Rock would be one of the cleanest coal fired plants in the country. He says scrubbers would remove many of the harmful chemicals that can lead to health problems and smog. And it would cough up less carbon dioxide than the older generation of coal fired plants.

It's a higher heat rate so that the coal is heated up so it combusts more completely, basically what you're doing, you're getting more efficiency, you're getting more megawatts out of less coal.

Still, Desert Rock would emit nearly 13 million tons of CO2 every year. That's only about ten percent less than older plants.

SFX: sneak up ambi from city park
For a community to already have two of these plants and to now be considering a third just seems crazy.

Mike Eisenfeld, who's at a Farmington park with his two young children, runs the New Mexico branch of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, an environmental group opposing Desert Rock. The San Juan and Four Corners plants together emit nearly 30 million tons of carbon dioxide every year. Eisenfeld acknowledges Desert Rock would be cleaner, but says it's not fair to compare them.

Eisenfeld: They're 40 year old plants, so it's kind of comparing hybrid vehicles to a 1970s truck, they keep saying it's clean coal, this is going to be the cleanest facility in the country, and it's like, compared to what?

Eisenfeld and other environmentalists worry if Desert Rock and other proposed coal plants are built, the country will be saddled with growing greenhouse gas emissions for decades to come.

As a nation we should consider a ban on all new coal plants.

Roger Clark is air and energy director with the Flagstaff based Grand Canyon Trust.

We're at a point now where we need to start reversing the amount of greenhouse gasses that we're putting into the atmosphere.

Clark believes we can meet our projected electricity demand through energy efficiency improvements, combined with investments in renewables. Clark cites a proposal to build a one thousand mile transmission line from Wyoming to Phoenix, to help meet Arizona's growing power demand. The estimated price tag? 3 to 5 billion dollars.

If you think about what we could do with 3 to 5 billion in investment in efficiency, concentrated solar, wind, that would buy us easily 3 to 5 thousand megawatts, that's what they're hoping to bring down from Wyoming, and it would be produced here locally.

The Navajo Nation is in the early stages of developing a wind farm on Gray Mountain, east of the Grand Canyon. But that would only produce 200 megawatts of electricity; Desert Rock would be seven times that size.

The tribe's primary focus in this debate isn't CO2 emissions, or climate change; it's jobs and revenue. Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Junior has been one of Desert Rock's staunchest advocates.

We don't really have economic development to talk about on Navajoland, it's the reason why our unemployment rate hovers at 50 percent, that's really atrocious, from unemployment comes domestic violence, drinking, drug use, all kinds of social ills. I'm doing everything I can to bring employment, jobs to Navajoland, that's what Desert Rock is all about.

Desert Rock would create hundreds of jobs, and would generate an estimated 50 million dollars annually for the tribe. That's about one third of its current budget. If the plant gets its final environmental approvals, and it isn't taken to court, that money could start flowing as early as 20-12.

For Arizona Public Radio, I'm Daniel Kraker, at the Burnham Chapter on the Navajo Nation.