Southern California environment news and trends

EPA action on Navajo Generating Station has implications for LADWP, anti-coal activists, Arizona

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In Arizona, the Navajo Generating Station is a coal-fired power plant consuming up to 25,000 tons of coal per day that serves the LADWP, among others.

Efforts to clean up hazy air at national parks in Arizona could change how the Navajo Generating Station behaves and what energy costs in LA. That matters in LA because Navajo is one of the two sources of cheap coal energy for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and as Air Talk pointed out last week, Arizona and California are linked when it comes to coal energy.

EPA's concerned about visibility at what it calls Class 1 areas: national parks, like the Grand Canyon, or Saguaro National Park, or US Forest Service areas, like Pine Mountain, Mount Baldy, or Gila Wilderness areas (Gila's in New Mexico, but you get the point). Under the Clean Air Act federal environmental regulators have been moving to control sulfur dioxide (SO2, or "sox"), coarse particulate matter (smog), and nitrogen oxides (NOx) from power plants in the area. 

EPA announced a proposed plan earlier this month, saying, "[n]inety percent of the time, the Grand Canyon’s air is impaired by pollution. On average, pollution reduces the Grand Canyon's pristine natural visual range by more than 30 percent." Part of the agency's idea is to impose new controls at three power plants on Arizona land: Cholla Power Plant, Coronado Generating Station, Apache Generating Station.

EPA's backed by environmental groups including the National Parks Conservation Assocation. NPCA's Kevin Dahl writes, "Park visitors and staff contribute approximately $721 million to local economies on an annual basis. By cutting down on the haze-pollution above these unparalleled landscapes, tourists will continue to visit and lengthen their stays, thus powering the economy." 

One of the two out of state coal plants that delivers power to the LADWP, Navajo Generating Station is a special case. Cooled by Lake Powell water, its furnaces are stoked with trainloads of coal from mines on tribal lands, Navajo is a semi-autonomous region within Arizona, handled separately under federal law. Yesterday in the Deseret News, John Hollenhorst filed a story presenting concerns that this federal plan will affect Navajo. While one rule making to which he referred applies only to plants on Arizona state land, Navajo remains squarely in the federal government's sights. 

EPA has been considering action on the Navajo Generating Station for a couple of years. The agency's fact sheet on the plant acknowledges that Navajo has already taken some action to clean up air: "[e]xisting pollution control equipment at NGS includes scrubbers for SO2 control, hot-side electrostatic precipitators for particulate matter, and all three units are being retrofit with modern low NOx burners and separated overfire air for NOx control." (A Department of Interior analysis considers the costs of more controls and who would pay them.)Now, the federal government seems to be nearing action. 

What this means is different for different observers. The plant's operators are spinning the EPA's regulatory action as a job-killer, and a potential factor in closing the plant as early as 2017. In the Deseret News story, a communications consultant for the NGS, George Hardeen, told Hollenhorst that holding Navajo to the standards to which the EPA intends to hold all power plants in the region could close it prematurely, killing 1000 jobs. "It would be putting a big expense out and not knowng if you'd get that expense back over time," Hardeen said. Hardeen also took issue with the idea that reducing nitrogen oxide is important to visibility. "Scientifically it will reduce NOx by another 40% but how much will be visible to the human eye would be debatable," he told the news. 

For its part, DWP may be free from its 21% stake in the plant by then. The utility's Integrated Resources Plan has recommended that DWP divest itself of Navajo by the end of 2015, though currently it's still slated to participate in Navajo until the end of 2019. It takes a while because once DWP makes divestment from Navajo its policy, other shareholders have the right to buy DWP's shares during a three year period. End of 2015 is simply a realistic estimate. 

Anti-coal activists have tried to use news of the EPA's regulatory action as one more persuasive arrow against the DWP's interest in coal. Greenpeace & Sierra Club want DWP out of Navajo, to save 1.86 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from its carbon burden a year, and to send a message to other power plants and operators that coal is unsustainable. They want to make the EPA's action with Navajo about what happens next with DWP's Intermountain Power Plant interests too.

(Correction: George Hardeen formerly directed communications for an office in the Navajo Nation. Now he's a communications consultant who works for the Navajo Generating Station. I regret the error.)

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