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Sound, long-range planning — not politics — needed at Navajo coal plant

Election seasons are always filled with spin and rhetoric. But important issues for Arizonans are not well-served when that’s too much the case and the facts get lost.

We are likely to see this in action when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announces plans for pollution control updates needed for the Navajo Generating Station (NGS) coal-fired power plant near Page.

At stake are issues of public health, smog, electricity, jobs and economic development, water, and a potentially important pivot point for our state’s energy future.

Unfortunately, coal plant proponents will look at the cost of reducing one type of pollution in isolation instead of taking a comprehensive look at the plant, and all the likely pollution controls that will be needed over time to protect human health and our environment.

A piecemeal approach will evaluate the costs and benefits of controls for nitrogen oxides, expected soon from EPA. Then, at a later date, the costs for controlling mercury, coal ash and possibly carbon dioxide will be considered. A financially more prudent, comprehensive approach would look at all the expected pollution controls necessary for the plant and evaluate the cost of all upcoming expenditures compared to transitioning to and investing in new power sources.

Let’s look at some of the assertions we are likely to hear about the current round of required emissions controls.

First, we will hear that adding pollution control equipment on NGS for nitrogen oxides is about haze, not health. In fact, adding controls for nitrogen oxides will affect both, as nitrogen oxides contribute to smog at the nearby Grand Canyon, ozone pollution throughout the region, and the fine particle pollution that is so dangerous to human lungs, especially in children and seniors.

An emissions control technology called “selective catalytic reduction”

can eliminate 80 percent of nitrogen oxides pollution from plant smokestacks. It’s in wide use at more than 200 other coal units around the country and is being considered by EPA for NGS.

Second, we will hear that NGS has already been “cleaned up.” The fact is that while some pollution controls have been added over the years — such as sulfur controls in the 1990s and low-quality nitrogen oxide controls more recently — it is only a dent in the pollutants generated by burning coal. NGS continues to rank among the nation’s worst emitters of harmful pollution — releasing 25,000 tons of nitrogen oxides each year. It also emits 53,000 pounds a year of toxic mercury and chromium.

Third, plant supporters will argue that a political “war on coal,”

rather than market forces, is affecting the future of the plant. In reality, lower natural gas prices, steadily declining costs for renewable energy, increasing costs to maintain aging plants, and an unwillingness of financial markets to risk money in new coal plants are the factors affecting the viability of coal-fired generation.

In its upcoming proposal for pollution control updates at NGS, EPA is acting on Clean Air Act provisions adopted in the 1990s to control pollution and is not mounting a sudden, new effort to attack coal. The provisions were passed with bipartisan support, including Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl.

So, let’s go back to the debate on whether to install this round of upgrades.

Like an old car, the aging NGS requires ongoing expenditures. At some point it is cheaper and better to purchase the newer car than continue to pour good money into the failing one.

More than half a billion dollars has already been spent on the NGS plant just to address one type of pollution. It is estimated that another billion dollars may be required to address nitrogen oxides and mercury and even more on coal ash issues.

In this economy, Arizona must choose wisely to ensure that we have reliable, affordable and clean electric power for the future.

Arizonans will be better served if utility plant owners, affected community members and other stakeholders take a comprehensive view of the costs of keeping this plant alive. We need frank discussions about whether to spend money on this plant or invest the money in newer, healthier power sources. A compromise that is crafted, using facts not rhetoric, can create a thoughtful and cost-effective transition plan for the plant that thoroughly considers jobs and economic development on the Navajo Nation, water use and energy affordability. Arizona’s residents deserve nothing less.

— Amanda Ormond is an energy consultant and former director of the state Energy Office.


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