New Mexico Utility Caught on Horns of Technology Dilemma

DENVER, Colorado, March 1, 2012 (ENS) – The U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver today denied requests by the electric utility Public Service Company of New Mexico and others to delay a new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air emissions requirement on the company’s primary power source – the coal-burning San Juan Generating Station near Farmington, New Mexico.

“Agressive,” is what the company calls the EPA’s five-year compliance deadline for the San Juan plant to install the selective catalytic reduction, SCR, technology required by the agency to increase visibility in the area.

PNM said in a statement today that the company must “begin preparing to install that technology now even though the court ultimately could find it unnecessary.”

Instead, PNM supports a plan approved by New Mexico to meet the federal visibility rules by installing a different technology, selective non-catalytic reduction, SNCR, on all units at the San Juan plant.

San Juan Generating Station (Photo courtesy Grand Canyon Trust)

The company, New Mexico’s largest electricity provider, says the state’s SNCR strategy would reduce San Juan’s emissions of nitrogen oxides by 20 percent annually.

Combined with reductions from a major environmental upgrade completed in 2009, this would represent an annual NOx reduction of 73 percent from 2006 levels, says the company – a figure very close to the 80 percent reduction the EPA requires.

Based in Albuquerque, PNM serves about 498,700 electricity customers statewide and also sells electricity on the wholesale market.

Today’s ruling is a decision by the court not to delay EPA’s plan while the issue of which pollution control technology the company must install at the San Juan power plant is considered by the court.

The court will now weigh the merits of appeals against the requirement by PNM, the New Mexico Environment Department and New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez.

These parties argue that EPA’s mandate would cost New Mexico electric ratepayers and others about $750 million, while the New Mexico plan to install the SNCR system could meet the same federal visibility rules for $77 million, or about one-tenth of the cost.

“We remain committed to resolving this issue and, ultimately, to installing the most cost-effective, new visibility controls on the San Juan power plant,” said Pat Vincent-Collawn, chairman, president and CEO of PNM parent company PNM Resources.

“In the meantime,” he said, “we have a strong case to make that EPA violated the Clean Air Act and its own regulations in determining the best available retrofit technology for the plant.”

San Juan Generating Station (Photo courtesy PNM)

“Today’s decision does increase our focus on convincing EPA administrators to quickly approve the New Mexico plan and, prior to taking that action, put the EPA requirement on hold,” said Vincent-Collawn.

For decades, nitrogen emissions from coal-burning power plants have been a major source of haze in the Four Corners region, clouding the air and views in economically important national parks, says the Grand Canyon Trust. The nonprofit says, “Premature deaths, asthma attacks, heart attacks, chronic bronchitis, and hospital visits from San Juan Generating Station’s pollution have cost an estimated $255 million a year.”

According to a Clean Air Task Force report, San Juan Generating Station is responsible for more than 80 percent of the air pollution at Mesa Verde National Park, just across the border in Colorado. It also contributes to air pollution at the Grand Canyon and many other nationally protected landscapes.

“Pollution from this plant has been hurting our communities for generations,” said Donna House with DinĂ© CARE, a volunteer-driven conservation organization on the Navajo Nation in the Four Corners region. “Cutting coal pollution is a must, and moving to a cleaner energy than coal is the real answer.”

Clear air is essential to the economy of the region as well as to human health and the environment. Parks in the region support thousands of jobs, and the millions of people who visit them each year contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to local economies.

The EPA got involved as a result of the absence of an adequate state plan to reduce pollution at San Juan Generating Station, say environmental groups, many pleased with the court’s ruling.

EPA’s decision to require an 80 percent reduction in nitrogen oxide pollution at the plant is broadly supported by other federal agencies, including the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as public health, environmental, tribal, and other community organizations regionally and nationally.

These include San Juan Citizens Alliance, Diné CARE, WildEarth Guardians, National Parks Conservation Association, Earthjustice, Grand Canyon Trust, Sierra Club, and the Environmental Defense Fund, among others.

PNM is complying with the EPA’s requrement. On January 27 the company issued a request for proposals for design and construction of SCR technology at San Juan.

PNM estimates that about $246 million of the total expected project cost will be spent through 2013 – a time period during which the matter could still be pending in court.

As owner of 46 percent of the plant, PNM’s portion of these initial SCR costs will total about $22 million through the end of this year and about $113 million in total through the end of 2013, the company estimates.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2012. All rights reserved.