Beyond the Four Corners: Extending the Life of a Western Coal Belt

When does a very large EIS become too large?

Combined, the Navajo Generating Station, Four Corners Generating Station, and San Juan Generating Station make up a sizable portion of just about everything in their vicinity.  Their emissions of greenhouse gases, conventional pollutants like particulates and NOx and SOx, and toxics like mercury, lead and selenium are enormous for the region.  Their economic impact is enormous, too.  And the numbers they employ either directly or indirectly are big.

Four Corners recently down-sized significantly in the face of U.S. EPA enforcement of what the Clean Air Act calls “best available retrofit technology” for “existing sources” like these.  Four Corners elected to close thee of its five units and install some end-of-pipe technology on the remaining two.  But its two remaining units will, it seems, be operating for another three decades or so at least.  That according to a massive “record of decision” (ROD) released by the Interior Department last week recording the decision to continue operations at the Navajo Mine—which supplies Four Corners and only Four Corners—and the rights of way for the transmission lines taking electricity from Four Corners out to the world.

Asymmetrical Trade-Offs: What Frame of Reference?

To tally up the greenhouse gases being liberated in the region by these three mammoths, one has to look at some now dated data—from 2012:

The Four Corners power plant generated 13.2 million metric tons of CO2 that year, but a recent study shows that because it’s almost immediately next door to [San Juan], which emitted nearly 11 million tons of CO2 in 2012 . . . that region of northwest New Mexico is the largest single point-source of [GHG] pollution anywhere in both North America and South America.

Estimates put Navajo’s CO2 output (again from 2012, the last year for which good data are available) at about 15.4M tons.  Coal_anthraciteGranted, the Navajo station is quite a ways to the west of San Juan and Four Corners.  But in the bigger picture, coal and coal combustion are extraordinarily concentrated in this particularly arid region of our southwest.

Indeed, coal is so central that EPA’s 2014 “Clean Power Plan” essentially gave it a kind of free pass.  As Climate Central described the 2014 proposal, EPA basically exempted the tribal installations from any responsibilities under the Clean Power Plan.  When asked to comment, EPA retreated to the data:

Our approach to setting goals requires data on each covered power plant as well as information on each state, tribe or territory’s historical renewable energy generation and energy efficiency programs,” EPA Press Secretary Liz Purchia said. “Because none of the territories or tribes have reported historical renewable energy generation or energy efficiency program data to the U.S. government, EPA did not establish goals for the territories or tribes in the proposal.”

We raise this ROD here because it stems in part from a massive EIS completed earlier this year.  That EIS did raise the climate change implications of business as usual in the Four Corners region.  That particularly global set of trade-offs is extremely hard to put in rational terms.  According to the ROD, the “cumulative” environmental impact of Four Corners, the Navajo Mine and the other generating stations is big:

Cumulatively, as a result of the past, present, and reasonably foreseeable emissions from powerplants in the region and globally, and other sources of emissions, continued [Four Corners] operation may contribute to substantive emission-related impacts in the study areas. This risk would remain with or without the future operation of [Four Corners], and . . .  its future operation would not meaningfully increase those risks. The contribution of [Four Corners] to potential cumulative effects would be significantly less than historic conditions, and would still represent a decline over baseline emissions. Based on the [estimates], future [Four Corners] operations would not, overall, contribute substantively to cumulative ecological risks.

This is where the asymmetry comes in: metals contamination and other legacy effects make distinguishing past from future contamination very difficult.  And as to future carbon pollution?  It won’t be any worse than it has been in the past. . . .

In that Final EIS earlier this year—unlike many EISs—the Department endeavored to consider GHG emissions and the likely contributions to our unfolding climate crisis.  They have our applause for that.  That chapter alone was almost 30 pages, though (much of it needlessly dense, needlessly historic data and not really usable knowledge).  That’s not so good for transparency’s sake.

But what we culled from that chapter is this little nugget: compared to a “no action” scenario, all of the alternative scenarios extending the mine and Four Corners’ lives would result in about twice the “social costs” of carbon emissions as damage done in the future.  That’s to say, if you use the Office of Management & Budget’s methods and figure out a “social cost of carbon” at a marginal rate, the alternatives considered in this ‘Navajo Energy Project’ which involve continued operation of the Navajo Mine and Four Corners come to roughly $15.2B discounted to present value.  See Four Corners and Navajo Mine Energy Proj. FEIS at 4.2-26.

Letting those operations go dormant and forcing substitutions with electricity generating capacity from elsewhere comes to about $7.4 billion.  Now there could be other costs to a “no action alternative.”  But the difference here ($7.8B) is a big surplus.  That could buy a lot of “structural adjustment,” i.e., transfer payments, to help ease the transition away from the status quo.

The bitterest trade-offs here are those that tie the future, past, global and local together.  There are thousands of Americans lives being led in the filth wash of these generating stations: children breathing the air being polluted, living near the toxic ash pits they create, and smelling the stench they emit.  And an EIS on life extensions for these plants should have been their way to hold decision-makers responsible for the trade-offs.  Instead, in May they received three phone book-sized slugs of EIS and were told to comment on it ASAP before a decision was made.  The results were predictable.  As a local paper, the Daily Times of Farmington, NM, reported:

Sarah Jane White of Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, a Navajo environmental group, said the process allowed little time to adequately review all the documentation, including the 4,000-page EIS.

“I’m angry. I’m mad. I live in Little Water and I live in Fruitland as do my children and my grandchildren,” White said in a phone interview on Friday. “We live between both power plants and right across from the coal mine. Another 25 years. That’s a lot of years for people. That’s too many years. It’s really devastating.”

White said the Navajo Nation administration and Division of Natural Resources failed to hear her group’s requests for more time.

“I’m upset with the Navajo Nation. They dropped the ball,” she said. “We got over 4,000 pages — three big books — and we didn’t have enough time to go through everything, so we asked the president and we asked the resource department to help the Navajo people to request an extension. … They rushed us. It’s just not fair.”

There aren’t any easy alternatives where the retirement of coal-fired “base load” electricity generation goes.  It will cost some jobs.  And 1500 megawatts is hard to replace in any grid’s reliability/reserve calculations.    According to the ROD,

[a]fter weighing the long-term environmental impacts against the short-term impacts, and considering the best protection of resources, OSMRE has selected the No Action alternative as the environmentally preferred alternative for the [combined decisions]. This alternative would result in the least amount of impact to the majority of the impacted biological and physical environment, and would best protect, preserve, and enhance historical, cultural, and natural resources.

However, the No Action alternative would fail to meet the purpose and need of the proposed action. Further, the action alternatives are preferable to the No Action alternative in terms of socioeconomic impacts to the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe. Implementation of the No Action alternative would result in a major impact from the loss of revenue from fiscal contributions derived from [Four Corners] and Navajo Mine and from the large loss of high paying jobs. The reduction in revenues from payments and tax royalties from the Navajo Mine and [Four Corners] could also negatively impact the quality and quantity of public services for the Navajo Nation. Negative impacts to the nearby communities outside of the reservation boundary would also be expected due to the ripple effect related to the loss of jobs at the mine and power plant.

ROD at 18.  The “no action” alternative that would’ve shuttered the mine and Four Corners was “environmentally” superior but not selected.  What were the Department’s numbers on any of the supposed calculations behind its “purpose” or “need” judgments?  Did they factor in the almost $8B surplus a no action alternative would’ve created in averted social costs of carbon?  That’s the kind of transparency for which NEPA urges us to strive.  It wasn’t achieved in New Mexico earlier this month.

UPDATE {12/24/15}: The Durango Herald reports that a group of local plaintiffs have filed an intent to sue letter, noticing claims under the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and NEPA.

UPDATE {2/5/16}: The Farmington Times-Union reports that the scrubbers at issue in the EPA BART retrofit of the Four Corners units were installed in October.

{Image: Four Corners Generating Station from Climate Central}

I teach environmental, natural resources, and administrative law at Penn State Law. Before teaching I was an enforcement lawyer at U.S. EPA. Along the way I've done work for environmental nonprofits and written a fair bit about NEPA.
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