EPA rejects state’s San Juan coal plan

By Mona Blaber and John Buchser

In the previous Sierran, we reported to you that the state of New Mexico had proposed closing the two smallest units at Northern New Mexico’s coal-fired San Juan Generating Station as an alternative to EPA-required pollution controls on all four units of the plant.

The EPA had given the state and PNM, the utility that runs the plant, a stay to come up with a more sensible option than investing millions of dollars for pollution controls on the inefficient and water-guzzling plant, in effect keeping it in operation for decades more. While the controls would reduce health- and visibility-damaging nitrogen oxide, they would not reduce carbon pollution at all.

The EPA gave clear instructions when it issued the stay to give the state time to work with all stakeholders on an alternative to installing pollution technology at San Juan. For the EPA to consider an alternative, an essential first step was that it meet the protective standards of the Clean Air Act.

But the state of New Mexico’s proposal did not meet Clean Air Act requirements, so on Nov. 29 the EPA let the stay expire without accepting the proposal.

The state’s plan committed the biggest units at San Juan to emit millions of tons of carbon dioxide a year for decades to come, using billions of gallons of water each year and causing millions of dollars in health damages.

The Sierra Club and other community groups have provided scenarios that would meet Clean Air Act requirements, create opportunities for economic development through renewable energy in the Four Corners region and protect our families from the multiple dangers of coal.

So far the state has included no new renewable energy in its proposal. Lost power from the two units that would be retired would be from existing and new natural gas, according to the state.

PNM is required by state law to double its renewable sources by 2020, which gives it a great opportunity to replace more of San Juan’s dirty, risky power with cleaner sources without spending a dime more than is already required by law.

New Mexico can move away from coal completely through an aggressive energy-efficiency plan in addition to development of wind, solar and other clean sources of energy — the kind of investment PNM is required by law to make anyway.

For climate progress, air quality and the economic benefits of clean energy, San Juan’s fate is the biggest decision for New Mexico for years to come.

We can do much better than keeping the majority of the San Juan plant chugging away with substandard pollution controls. Let’s seize this opportunity to give New Mexicans a brighter, safer and more prosperous future.