Dirty Coal

Again, so-called Red states are reaping benefits of the energy-friendly Bush administration. However, nobody really wants to live near a coal plant: they spew tons of sulfur, mercury, and other toxic materials. And I suspect that most people who voted for Bush didn't really expect that would translate, in the real world, in having new coal plants being built nearby, away from burdensome federal regulations. Those so-called Blue states restrict pollution, as much as possible.
The New York Times:
a coal project ... in northern Nevada is one of more than 100 coal-fueled plants that are vying for approval around the country - the largest increase in such projects since the 1970's.

The reason for coal's resurgence is an intensifying fear in the United States that supplies will become scarce in electricity's other main fuel source, natural gas. And coal is a lot cheaper.

Altogether, energy companies in the United States have announced plans to build more coal-fired power plants in the last 12 months than they did in the last 12 years. If all those projects get off the ground, utilities would invest more than $100 billion.

The electricity industry's back-to-the-future approach to coal is soon expected to pit dozens of communities around the country against energy companies that are planning coal-based expansion strategies in their midst.

The Bush administration has significantly shifted policy away from three decades of federal efforts to reduce the nation's dependence on coal, which is significantly cleaner than it once was, but still dirtier than natural gas.

But until coal-fired plants become even cleaner, clashes over their impact on air quality are expected to multiply. Because of restrictions elsewhere, many coal-fired power plants will be put in places with pristine air quality and relatively relaxed pollution restrictions.

Gerlach's location near Nevada's border with California, an energy-hungry state where environmental standards make it nearly impossible to build coal-fired plants, is one attraction for the builder, Sempra Energy. Gerlach, which has fewer than 200 residents, is at the crossroads of rail lines that can haul coal from Montana strip mines and an electricity transmission line that can send the power southward to Los Angeles and San Diego.

Gerlach has a "combination of ideal factors," said Marty Swartz, a director for project development at Sempra. As for Gerlach itself, he said, the project would generate about $30 million in tax revenue for Washoe County, which encompasses this tiny hamlet as well as Reno, a two-hour drive south.


"If it's such a great deal, then let them build the thing in California," Mr. Bogard, 56, the owner of a pottery business, said. "I'm not sure if anyone involved with this realizes what a nightmare it is to have a plant spewing coal fumes go up in their backyard. This would simply destroy our life out here."

The tensions arising from Sempra's plan - known as the Granite Fox Power project - and from similar plans for other coal-fueled plants are an inevitable outcome of energy policies pursued in the 1990's. During that period, nearly every new electricity plant was built to be run on natural gas, which is cleaner-burning and was generally thought at the time to be in ample supply in North America.

But in the last five years, natural gas prices have skyrocketed as imports from Canada slowed and domestic production failed to keep up with demand. Prices have shot up to more than $6 for each thousand cubic feet from just $2 in 1999.

Coal, meanwhile, has remained relatively cheap, and the United States has the world's largest reserves. As a result, while it costs more to build a coal-fired plant than it does to build one to use natural gas, the running cost of a gas plant has soared in comparison with coal. A typical coal-fired power plant spends 2 cents per kilowatt-hour to fuel its operations, compared with 5 cents per kilowatt-hour for a plant fueled by natural gas.

In the partly deregulated power-generating business, much of that electricity can be sold at prices reflecting the cost of the most expensive source. "Running a coal-fired plant in these times is a gold mine," said Robert McIlvaine, a coal industry consultant in Northfield, Ill., who does research on new power plants around the country.

...In the last year, Sempra, together with an investment fund connected to the Carlyle Group, spent more than $400 million to acquire a large amount of coal-fired energy generating capacity in South Texas.

Sempra is also trying to build a 750-megawatt coal-fired plant in Idaho. But its most ambitious move into coal is here in Gerlach, where Sempra wants to invest more than $1 billion over the next five years, creating roughly 800 local construction jobs.

Despite the expected economic lift, people in Gerlach are divided over the coal-fired plant.

...Still, like Mr. Bogard, some of the people who came to Gerlach to distance themselves from the bright lights of the city are concerned over the potential environmental impact of a coal-fired plant. And they worry that a large industrial complex would ruin the aesthetics of a quiet natural swath of northern Nevada's playa, or desert flats.

...But it will not be without a fight. Environmentalists, working with some local residents, have begun marshaling opposition.

"No matter how clean the technology for coal-fired plants, they still contribute to pollution by dumping tons of material in the air basins and beyond," Susan Lynn, executive director of Public Resource Associates, a nonprofit organization that works on land policy issues, wrote in a recent letter to Nevada's public utilities commission.

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This page contains a single entry by swanksalot published on November 20, 2004 10:42 PM.

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