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As Plant Faces Closure, New Mexico City Weighs Bet on Clean Coal Technology

Danielle Nguyen
Jun 26 2019

With the state committed to decarbonizing its electricity supply by 2045, Farmington’s coal-fired power plant and mine are set to shut down. Faced with the loss of their largest employer, city leaders are considering whether to get behind an uncertain carbon-capture technology, or turn to renewables and the tourist economy.

The San Juan Generating Station in Farmington, NM, above, is one of several coal-fired power plants in the four corners area that are facing closure in the next few years.

A Turning Point for Coal?   The San Juan Generating Station in Farmington, NM, above, is one of several coal-fired power plants in the four corners area that are facing closure in the next few years.   Vladimir Choloupka for ...& The West
 

By Danielle Nguyen

Farmington, nestled in the heart of northwest New Mexico’s San Juan County, has a population of about 45,000, making it a bustling hub in rural northwestern New Mexico. It is the largest city for hundreds of miles, and its major highway is a two-lane road. Bordering the Navajo Nation, Farmington is also home to abundant natural beauty, cultural diversity and an economy that has stably rested on two major coal-based employers.

That once-solid economic base is shakier all the time. San Juan County houses two predominantly coal-fired power plants, the San Juan Generating Station (SJGS) and the Four Corners Generating Station. While the oil and gas industry has undergone cyclical booms and busts in the region, coal has been the steady economic foundation for decades.

Then, on March 22, 2019, New Mexico’s governor, the Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham, signed the Energy Transition Act into law. It requires the state’s utilities to be 100 percent carbon-free by 2045. To meet the new standard, the Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM), the majority owner of the San Juan Generating Station, plans to shut down the plant as it moves away from coal.

According to the utility, the San Juan station will likely close its doors in three years’ time. The loss of the station will be mean much more to the community than the 497 megawatts of electricity it generates: the plant provides jobs directly and indirectly to about 1,600 workers, some 27 percent of them from the Navajo Nation.

The announcement about the pending closure of the plant — and the dramatic loss of work in the nearby mine that supplies its coal — is a clear sign of the trend away from coal in the greater Four Corners region. Arizona’s Navajo Generating Station is slated to retire in 2019, the Four Corners plant in 2031, the Magna, Utah plant in 2025, and the Nucla, Colorado plant in 2022.


Bill Lane Center for the American West
 

Next to the electric power station is the San Juan coal mine, which exclusively provides coal to the plant. At its peak, the mine sent over 7 million tons a year to the plant.   Vladimir Choloupka for ...& The West
 

The backdrop of this trend is the upside-down economics of coal plants, which were once cheaper than most rival energy sources. But that advantage has been largely nullified by the rise of natural gas, now plentiful since the advent of fracking, and the more recent price decreases spurring the rise of renewables like solar and wind power. The economics are powerful, but so is the specter of climate change, which is exacerbated by the tons of carbon dioxide emitted by power plants burning coal.

San Juan station is the largest source of air pollution in the state, releasing over 13 million tons of carbon dioxide a year. It is also expensive to maintain and can no longer produce energy at competitive prices.

San Juan station is the largest source of air pollution in the state, releasing over 13 million tons of carbon dioxide a year. It is also expensive to maintain and can no longer produce energy at competitive prices.

Farmington’s leadership is pushing for the adoption of carbon-capture technology at the plant in hopes to keep it running by giving it something else to sell. If that does not work and the plant closes, a drastic change is looming for San Juan County’s way of life. It will, disproportionately affect tribal members.

A PNM representative said, “these power plants are an important part of their local communities. That is why the Energy Transition Act provides for not only a transition plan for the workers but also $20 million for the local community.” These funds will be used for workforce retraining, economic development, and will support the department focused on Indian affairs.


A Tear in The Fabric of Farmington’s Life

Timothy Kienitz, left, is principal of Farmington High School.   Vladimir Choloupka for ...& The West
 

“It's become part of the fabric and the culture of not only Farmington but also the Navajo reservation,” Timothy Kienitz, principal of Farmington High School, said of the plant. Bordering the reservation to the West, Navajos make up 41 percent of the high school’s student body. “There are generations of families who have worked at the plant and they see that as a source of pride. If that goes away, then all of a sudden you take away that self-sufficiency,” Kienitz said.

A foreshadowing of how plant closures could affect the city came when two of SJGS’s four coal-fired generators were retired in 2017. “We did see a higher number of free and reduced lunches.” Kienitz said. Now, 52 percent of his students receive free or reduced-price lunch.

The San Juan Mine is the sole provider of coal for SJGS, so each enterprise is the lifeblood of the other. Bob Green, a supervisor at the mine for more than 17 years, was one of its first hires when it opened in 2000. “The mine provided the coal to the power plant for two million customers and 80 percent of the electricity that PNM supplied. We needed to mine about 6.5 to 7 million tons a year to supply the power plant. When all four units were running it burned about 9,500 tons per day,” Green said.

“The mine and power plant workers go to Farmington and buy a lot.”

Green added that working at the mine created a sense of camaraderie, a closely-bound community that would be unrooted if employees had to find a job far away. “Mining is inherently difficult, with changing conditions and changing weather,” Green said. “You pull together and you take pride in that. You become family as important as your own family at home.”

“We're all like brothers and sisters here,” said Kenny Benally, a member of the Navajo Nation and a heavy equipment operator at the mine. “It’s been 10 hours out of the day with one another so we all get along.”

According to PNM, about 27 percent of its employees at the generating station are Navajo. On the Navajo Nation, 43 percent of residents live below the poverty line. “The Navajo Nation has an unemployment rate of almost 50 percent, and we are going to add to that,” said Mike Stark, San Juan’s county manager.

“It's really going to take a hit on the Navajo Nation,” said Kenny Benally. “It's going to be hard for everybody on and off the reservation.”

Jerry Benally, a heavy equipment operator at the mine and a member of the Navajo Nation.
Jerry Benally, a heavy equipment operator at the mine and a member of the Navajo Nation.   Danielle Nguyen

Frank Maisano, a senior principal at Bracewell, said, “It would be a ding on the Four Corners region, but it would really hurt the Navajo people. These are skilled labor union jobs that pay well and if they go away it will hurt people that can least afford it.”

In many households on the reservation, multiple generations live together. “In many cases it may be one person who works at that power plant or in that mine who is not just taking care of their family but also taking care of extended family,” said Farmington Mayor Nate Duckett. “If saving the world means that we have to kill humans to do it, then I don't know if I want to save the world.”

Employees would not be the only ones affected by the closure of the plant and mine. The whole city of Farmington would face a wrenching adjustment. A study commissioned by Four Corners Economic Development last year estimated that closing the plant would lead to more than $105 million in lost wages. As Bob Green explained, “A lot of these highly-paid people have brought in things to the community that we wouldn’t normally have.” Green’s wife works at the medical facility in Farmington.

“The mine and power plant workers go to Farmington and buy a lot,” Kenny Benally added.

If the plant closes, many of the county’s longtime residents may be forced to move away, finding it harder to support their families. “Most of the people that work at the mine are high school graduates. Those people can make really good money. A starting person could make upwards of $65,000 a year,” Green said. “This game is political, legislative, public sentiment and economic. Things out of their control. And time is running out.”

Jerry Benally, another heavy equipment operator at the mine and a member of the Navajo Nation, is already looking for jobs. Without a college degree, it is difficult to find one that pays as well as the mine. Only seven percent of Navajo Nation members have a college degree. “There are jobs out there, but they are minimum wage, up to maybe $20 an hour if you're lucky,” he said. “I already told my wife to plan on it shutting down in 2022."


New Futures Without the Generating Station — or Maybe With It

Lake Farmington, a popular swimming and boating spot.   Vladimir Choloupka for ...& The West
 

One possible future sees Farmington as a depopulated ghost town. But depending on changes in circumstances and the adaptability of residents, other futures may await.

Moving forward, northwest New Mexico has potential for renewable energy development as well as outdoor recreation. A new water park, Brookside Bay, is already under construction.

Another possibility for the town is supported by Farmington’s leaders: keeping the San Juan Generating Station open by capturing and storing its abundant carbon emissions underground.

“A lot of those in the legislature say we are pro-coal, anti-renewable,” said County Manager Mike Stark. “The reality is that we want to hang on to those good-paying jobs and tax revenues as long as we can.”

Supporters say this technology, called carbon capture and sequestration, can offset 90 percent of the plant’s carbon dioxide emissions. As proof of the seriousness of this effort, city leaders have announced an agreement for the San Juan plant to be purchased by Enchant Energy, a subsidiary of the venture capital firm Acme Equities.

“I'm just going to ride it out till the end, until the last day.” Kenny Benally, a heavy equipment operator.   Danielle Nguyen
 

Another possibility for the town is supported by Farmington’s leaders: keeping the San Juan Generating Station open by capturing and storing its abundant carbon emissions underground.

Enchant plans to operate the coal plant while installing the carbon capture technology. Once collected, the company says, the carbon dioxide can then be used for enhanced oil recovery, a process where compressed carbon is piped into older wells to dislodge oil. Industrial plants in the United States capture 65 million tons of carbon each year, 60 million of which is used for enhanced oil recovery. Companies that store carbon by injecting it into the earth can also receive up to $50 per ton in tax credits.

Jason Selch, co-founder of Acme Equities, said, “The plant emits about 6.6 million tons, and we are going to reduce emissions by 6 million tons by putting in CCS. All the cars in New Mexico emit 3 million tons total. It is taking something that is a bad thing and changing it into a good thing.”

Nathan Welch, a postdoctoral researcher at Los Alamos National Labs, said that CCS is actively being researched by numerous groups at Los Alamos National Lab. “My group alone has many projects running from exploring better engineering of CO2 injection wellbores, the pipes used to deliver CO2 to the subsurface, along with studies on rock behavior, all the way to advancing acoustic monitoring of wells to better detect if a system is leaking,” said Welch.

“This will be the largest scale that it's ever been attempted on, but there seems to be great support at the federal level to infuse money into this project and see it be successful,” said Mike Stark, county manager. The carbon capture technology will find a use for the excess carbon dioxide, and will help to keep the jobs in the county.

With the trend towards decarbonization, Justin Ong, Program Director at the market-oriented clean energy nonprofit ClearPath, believes that CCS carbon capture technology can “extend the useful life of plants” and “continue the production of coal in an environmentally friendly way.” According to Ong, “17 million metric tons of CO2 have been injected at multiple sites total.”

“This will be the largest scale that it’s ever been attempted on, but there seems to be great support at the federal level to infuse money into this project and see it be successful.”

Critics of the partnership between Enchant Energy and the city of Farmington are skeptical of carbon capture, which has yet to achieve widespread commercial adoption in the United States. Attempts to implement CCS technology have been unsuccessful; at the Kemper project in Mississippi, delays tripled the original cost estimate of $2.2 billion. Environmentalists describe CCS as only a band-aid to save the coal industry instead of a long-term clean solution. Storing carbon underground may also contaminate groundwater and cause earthquakes.

Enchant Energy has contracted with the engineering firm Sargent and Lundy on a feasibility study of installing carbon capture technology at San Juan station.

The dream of carbon capture in San Juan County is not a new one. A study conducted a decade ago by the same firm concluded that converting the plant’s remaining two units for CCS could cost $2 billion. Meanwhile, the Navajo Nation poured millions of dollars into planning for the Desert Rock project, which never reached fruition. This was to be a power plant with carbon capture technology that would sit directly on tribal land.


Economic and Energy Diversification

Farmington’s Mayor, Nate Duckett, left, and tourism promotion signs.   Vladimir Choloupka for ...& The West
 

“We've tried to put a new face on Farmington. We are not just coal and oil and gas.”

Farmington has recently installed road signs that highlight the natural assets of the region, under the motto, “Jolt Your Journey.”

“We've tried to put a new face on Farmington. We are not just coal and oil and gas,” said Farmington’s Mayor Nate Duckett. “We are also hiking trails and off-road trails and rivers and lakes and camping and fishing.” He says he hopes to “build a new mindset that we are a community where active families and outdoor lovers can thrive.”

Much like the state of New Mexico as a whole, Farmington also has the potential to be a national power in renewable energy, with an abundance of wind and more than 300 days of sunshine annually. Massive wind and solar projects are being built in southern New Mexico, like the 522 megawatt Sagamore Wind Project, which will be the largest wind farm in the state’s history. The SunZia and Western Spirit transmission line projects will enable power to be exported to major markets.


Bill Lane Center for the American West
 

“We are in a real need now for economic diversification,” said Mike Eisenfeld, Energy and Climate Program Manager at San Juan Citizens Alliance, an environmental advocacy group. “There are more sustainable ways of creating electricity that need to be fully vetted. We need to help with the transition, but we also need to think about diversifying our economy here.”

It is not clear what the coming changes in Farmington will mean for the mine and power plant workers now on edge. “I'm just going to ride it out till the end, until the last day,” said Kenny Benally, maintaining his optimism. “That's all you can do, hope for the best.”


 
Photographs by Vladimir Choloupka for ...& The West

 

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Edited by Felicity Barringer and Geoff McGhee.

 

 

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Reader Comments

Submit your own thoughts and questions by using the form at the bottom of this page. Entries will be reviewed and posted as we get them.

Pat Duran Maryland

Responding to As Plant Faces Closure, New Mexico City Weighs Bet on Clean Coal Technology

So several million dollars has already been poured down the rabbit hole of "carbon capture," with nothing to show for it, but Farmington is ready to do it all over again. There is great opportunity in the green energy sector, but it takes imagination and expertise to take advantage of these new technologies. It looks like poor Farmington sufers from a dearth of both.

6/27/2019, 8:28pm

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Coachella Mandates Hazard Pay for Farmworkers under its jurisdiction in southeastern California. About 8,000 farmworkers live in Coachella Valley, with 30 percent of these in the city itself. Farms have been a common site of Covid-19 outbreaks. Workers often struggle to find protective gear and many occupy shared housing. As of mid-February, at least 12,787 farm workers have tested positive for Covid-19, and 43 have died, according to the Food & Environment Reporting Network’s outbreak tracker. The Counter

To Win State Control of Federal Lands in Utah, Suits Claimed Thousands of Wilderness “Roads” Existed. Their existence has been in dispute since suits were first filed in 2012, and a recent judicial ruling, saying wilderness advocates were improperly cut out of the certification process, may mean years more litigation. Some in state government are asking if the effort is worth it. Salt Lake Tribune

Environmentalists Fighting Tejon Valley Ranch Development Invoke Native Claims that the California condor qualifies as a cultural resource. In an appeal of a federal court ruling that allowed nearly 9,000 acres to be developed with homes and a golf course, the Center for Biological Diversity and local tribes argue the development in condor habitat would harm the bird. A dozen years ago, a landmark agreement between the ranch and major environmental organizations protected 240,000 acres of the ranch’s land and allowed development on the remaining 30,000 acres, including the land now in dispute. The Center was not a party to the agreement. Mynewsla High Country News

Montana’s National Bison Range Now Under Native Control. After 25 years of and on-again, off-again federal effort to transfer management of the range located on the Flathead Indian Reservation from the Interior Department to the Confederated Salish-Kootenai tribe, the final legal agreement was reached in December and earlier this year the transfer took place. Charkoosta

California Legislators Consider Vast Expansion of Offshore Wind. A new bill would require California to set a target of constructing 3,000 megawatts of offshore wind by 2030. Fishermen and environmentalists are still somewhat wary of offshore wind, but the bill has attracted support from labor leaders across the state. San Jose Mercury-News

Articles Worth Reading: Feb 2, 2021

On U.S. Public Lands, Can Biden Undo What Trump Has Wrought? President Biden’s ambitious agenda for public lands includes bans on oil and gas drilling and restored protections for key areas. Reversing the Trump administration’s policies, however, may be made difficult by conservative courts and rules changes. Yale Environment 360

Why Utah’s Wild Mink COVID-19 Cases Matter: In Utah, which faces similar problems to those encountered by the Netherlands last year, thousands of farmed minks have died of Covid-19. The affected sites have been forced into quarantine, and a wild mink tested positive for coronavirus last month -- the first wild animal to have naturally been infected with the virus. High Country News spoke with Dr. Anna Fagre, a virologist and veterinarian at Colorado State University, to help put the recent COVID-19 outbreak among wild minks in context. High Country News

Timber Tax Cuts Cost Oregon Towns Billions. Then Polluted Water Drove Up the Price. In rural Oregon, logging-related water contamination has threatened their access to clean, safe drinking water, forcing small towns to spend millions on new water infrastructure. The future of logging regulations remains murky for the nation’s top lumber producer. For decades, Oregon has allowed logging companies to leave fewer trees behind than in other states. Propublica/Oregonian

The Interior Department Effort to Relocate Jobs to Colorado Prompted a Mass Exodus; some 41 of 328 employes slated to move to Grand Junction, Colorado actually made the move; the rest left the agency. The Bureau of Land Management’s loss of so many longtime career employes – only 60 jobs were left in place in the Washington office -- is an example of the Trump Administration’s success the federal government. Washington Post

An Exploration of the Reasons to Cherish Microbiotic Soils. Fungi, lichen, cyanobacteria, algae, and other tiny organisms live in just the top few millimeters of soil; these crusts are critical to the health of the desert, and can be damaged repeated trampling by people, cattle, or off-road vehicles. Sierra Club

Some Ecological Damage from Trump’s Rushed Border Wall Could Be Repaired; conservationists are urging the Biden administration to remove sections of the barrier that cut across critical habitats, block migration corridors, and damage watersheds. The coalition opposing the wall has identified specific problematic sections to be potentially removed. Scientific American

Tens of Millions of Birds Pass Through Two Corridors in the West: California’s Central Valley and the Colorado River Delta. New research finds that more than 82 million birds pass through these regions during spring migration, with tree swallows concentrating in the Colorado delta and Anna’s hummingbirds in the Central Valley. This data helps define critical habitats for western birds, with up to 80 percent of some species’ populations passing through the two areas. Yale Environment 360

The Navajo Generating Station, a Major Employer and a Major Polluter on Navajo Land, has Been Demolished after Navajo and Hopi community members fought for years to close the facility. Now, Navajo and Hopi community members are outlining steps for community restoration, such as securing electricity and clean water access for residents, as well as job training. Center For Health, Environment And Justice

Articles Worth Reading: January 19, 2020

A Forever Drought Takes Hold in the West. The U.S. Drought Monitor — the nation’s official tally — shows Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico mired in “exceptional drought.” This type of drought is only supposed to happen every 50 years, but it’s now a regular occurrence. Even if rain and snow arrive in the coming months, parched soil will slurp it up, leaving less for riverbeds. Axios

“We’re Bound by That River,” one water expert said of the Colorado River, which supplies water to 40 million people. “All of us, regardless of our legal rights, regardless of what’s on paper, we need to consider how we can use less water. And we need to take action immediately.” The Colorado Basin and its water managers must juggle the laws that are decades old, new agreements and persistent aridity. The huge reservoirs of Lake Powell and Lake Mead have shrunk dramatically. Some observers say the rules governing distribution of the Colorado’s waters need to be fundamentally reimagined. Arizona Republic

Unlikely Coalitions Form to Block New Port Facilities to export fossil fuels. Teaming with Native Americans, ranchers and sportsmen, environmentalists have worked to block nearly every effort to export coal, oil and liquified natural gas from the West Coast. They just claimed another major victory this month – the latest of more than two dozen -- when a proposed coal-export terminal in Washington state was called off. Associated Press

“Fossil” Groundwater Is Being Depleted in California, and its users can’t rely on it being replenished any century soon, according to new study. If the water tucked underground for 100 centuries is used for the crops and pools of the 21st century, the fossil water stores will disappear for good. “It’s just like taking gold out of the ground, out of a mountain,” said Menso de Jong, the study’s lead author. “The gold is not going to grow back.” San Jose Mercury News

Apaches Sue to Stop First Step in Approval of Copper Mine Near Sacred Site. If an environmental study’s publication is blocked, the process of approving the mine planned by Resolution Copper might be derailed. A podcast interview with the reporter covering the controversy, Debra Utacia Krol of The Arizona Republic. KSUT

To Help Rural Economies, One-Third of Spotted Owl Habitat in Oregon Was Excluded from Protection. The size of the protected acreage has yo-yoed from one administration to the next, but this cut in protected areas is one of the biggest on record. The amount of habitat protected in the Obama administration was more than 9 million acres; the Trump administration in its final days cut that by more than 3 million acres. E&E News

Rural Coloradans Seek to Contain Light Pollution. NASA photos of Colorado from space show a widening urban white-out reaching into rural areas. The dark-sky zones that southwestern Colorado leaders are proposing in areas like the San Luis Valley would, all combined, cover more than 3,800 square miles — the largest official area protected from artificial light on the planet. Denver Post

Wildlife Take Stock of Photographers Taking Stock of Wildlife. “Animals interrupting wildlife photographers,” a thread by the Catalan journalist Joaquim Campa. Twitter

Articles Worth Reading: December 7, 2020

New Data Shows Lethal Damage to Coho Salmon Is From Tire Residue, as researchers double-down on the findings about tires’ environmental damage. One chemical, 6PPD-quinone, interacts with ozone and becomes highly toxic to Puget Sound salmon, taking out 40 to 80 percent of returning salmon before the spawn. The problem extends from Washington state, where scientists have been studying the issue, to California; tires are the largest source of microplastics in San Francisco Bay. The Seattle Times Los Angeles Times

With Legal Barriers Gone, More Westerners Are Harvesting Rain to supplement the disappearing water in the Colorado River and the Ogallala Aquifer. Rainwater harvesting—a cheap, low-barrier, low-energy method—may provide one piece of the long-term solution to water shortages in a region where climate change is intensifying droughts. Today, rainwater capture is legal in every state, though many have restrictions. A few, like Colorado, didn’t legalize it until 2016 and still restrict the total amount harvested. The Counter

A Navajo-Majority County Commission in Utah Calls for Restoring the Bears’ Ears Monument to its original size. The Trump Administration dramatically reduced the monument from 1.35 million acres to two separate areas totaling 200,000 acres. The San Juan County Commission voted 2-to-1 to make the request, with its two Navajo members in the majority. Associated Press

In the Wake of Fierce Fires, A Sudden Burst of Logging in Colorado. State foresters are overseeing wholesale mechanized tree-cutting, as tractors dig holes up to 140 acres in size are appearing among the lodgepole pines. A hot national wood-products market snaps up the lumber created in Colorado, which has never traditionally been a logging state. Across western Colorado, insect attacks on old and drought-enfeebled trees over the past decade have left 5 million acres of skeletal trees in a region climate change has made susceptible to wildfire. This year, 700,000 acres burned. Denver Post

As Insurers Blanch at Newly Calculated Wildfire Losses — $24 Billion in the U.S. in 2018, they continue to flee fire prone areas. In California alone in 20219, insurers pulled coverage from more than 230,000 homes — about 31 percent more than the year before. California regulators want to keep private insurers from fleeing the state, but know that climate change is changing everyone’s risk calculation. Bloomberg

Graphics & the West

Where California Grows Its Food

See the most detailed survey ever done of crops and land use in California. It covers nine million acres of land devoted to grapes, alfalfa, cotton, plums, you name it – food for people and animals all over the world. View map »

California's Changing Energy Mix

A look at the energy sources California utilities have used gives us insights into the state’s progress in decarbonizing its electricity supply. In 2015, 35% of total electricity generation (in-state generation plus imported electricity) came from zero-greenhouse-gas sources, which include solar, wind, hydropower, and nuclear. View Graphic »

U.S. Conservation Easements

Conservation easements of various kinds cover more than 22 million acres of land in the United States, according to the National Conservation Easement Database, a public-private partnership. Take a look at our interactive map of nearly every conservation easement, with details on over 130,000 sites. View map »

 

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