Desert Skies Deceptively Clear

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a new rule in March that would effectively limit new fossil fuel plants from emitting more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour (MWh) of energy produced.   The rule will impact new coal power plants that are still on the drawing board, and is an important step in limiting emissions from the energy sector, which is the biggest source of carbon pollution.  We still have a lot of work to stop polluters in the desert, however.   Many families moved to the desert regions of California in part to escape the notorious smog of the Los Angeles basin.  But the clear skies are deceptive since there are several industries -- including coal power plants -- spewing millions of tons of carbon and other harmful poisons into the air, hurting human health and contributing to climate change.
The Sierra Club has launched a petition in support of the EPA's proposed rule, which could still be weakened or abandoned since the fossil fuel industry is sure to push back.  You can sign the Sierra Club petition at their "Stop Polluters" page.
Coal on the way out in the desert?
When you take a look at the sources of carbon pollution in the desert, older coal plants are certainly a culprit, such as Nevada's Reid Gardner coal plant.  According to the EPA, the Reid Gardner plant emits around 3.1 million metric tons of CO2 a year.  By my rough calculations, Reid Gardner emits at least 680 pounds of CO2 above the new EPA rule of 1,000 pounds per MWh, and the average coal facility emits 768 pounds over the new limit.    The Navajo Generating Station in Arizona, another infamous coal plant in the southwest, generates up to 2,295 pounds of CO2 per MWh, and its power helps pump water to far flung desert cities dependent on the Colorado River.

The Navajo Generating Station, a coal power plant in Page, Arizona that emits 2,295 pounds of CO2 for every MWh of energy it generates.
Although these older facilities will not be impacted by the new EPA rule, at least one proposed coal plant in California might have a tougher time coming online.  The California Energy Commission is still reviewing the "Clean Hydrogen" facility proposed for Kern County next to the Tule Elk Reserve State Park.  Although "clean" is in its title, the facility would use coal and petroleum coke to generate 390MW of energy, and emit an estimated 3.4 million tons of CO2 each year. 

A review of projects under consideration in the southwest suggest not many other coal plants are being seriously considered, although we will still feel the impacts of coal on our climate as Washington continues to propose and approve new coal mining leases.  In February, the Bureau of Land Management paved the way for a mining company to extract 35.5 million tons of coal in Montana. The coal industry is intent on opening up a western port to export coal to Asia to feed their growing energy consumption, and compensate for any reduction in coal demand here in the US.

Desert left with other polluters
Although coal fired energy generation is the top source for CO2 emissions in the US,  there are other very significant sources of pollution in our southwestern deserts.  Cement and natural gas, which are on the dubious top 5 list of CO2 polluters, according to the EPA's draft 2012 greenhouse gas inventory, have quite a presence in the Mojave Desert.

The natural gas fired High Desert Power Project in Victorville emits roughly 1.3 million metric tons of CO2 a year, while the Chuck Lenzie Generation Station (also natural gas) near Las Vegas produces 2.8 million metric tons.  There are more natural gas facilities proposed for the desert, and utility companies unfortunately are also looking to natural gas plants' ability to quickly fire up to meet energy demand as compensation for the intermittent nature of solar and wind energy.

Cement plants poisoning desert communities
There are at least 5 major cement plants in the western Mojave Desert, emitting about 4,600,000 metric tons of CO2 each year, according to the EPA. Of particular concern to locals, these cement plans are also a major source for mercury emissions.  The Lehigh Southwest Cement plant in 2010 spewed 872 pounds of mercury into our air and water. For comparison,  the Reid Gardner coal plant in 2007 gave off 71 pounds.  It only takes a miniscule amount to have harmful effects on our bodies.

In 2007, the TXI Riverside Cement plant in the small town of Oro Grande next to the Mojave River gave off about 313 pounds of mercury.  Cemex California Cement near Victorville spewed 187 pounds, and the Mitsubishi Cement plant in Lucerne Valley gave the local community 151 pounds of the poison.  The CalPortland Company cement plant was responsible for 81 pounds of mercury emissions in 2009.   Ironically, the wind energy industry has an insatiable demand for cement.   In 2009 alone, the wind energy industry consumed 1.7 million cubic yards (enough to build a sidewalk 4 feet wide, and 7,630 miles long), according to the American Wind Energy Association. The US Geological Survey estimated that we will need another 6.8 million tons of cement if we want wind energy to produce 20% of our energy.  

The TXI Riverside Cement plant next to Oro Grande, California, in the western Mojave Desert. In 2007, the facility spewed 313 pounds of mercury.
EPA rules issued in 2006 and early 2011 will force some reduction in mercury emissions from cement plants, although the concentration of so many facilities in the western Mojave Desert probably will ensure an alarming amount of emissions will continue to impact communities there.

The toll of heavy polluting industries is a reminder that we need to take every opportunity to seek meaningful change, and not sidestep our responsibility as stewards of the Earth.  Relying on solutions that require so much destruction of natural resources merely prolongs our journey on an unsustainable path.  Natural gas was believed by some to offer a clean alternative to coal, forgetting that the difference is only marginal as even natural gas pollutes our ground water and air.   Even wind energy has significant shortcomings because of its demand for cement and steel from toxic industries, new transmission lines, and fragmentation of our wildlands.  Local clean energy like rooftop solar is by far the most sustainable solution that can disentangle us from an unhealthy dependence on big energy.  There is no free lunch when it comes to energy, but that doesn't mean that we in the environmental community have to keep ordering from the same menu.

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