U.S. EPA wants to reconsider the permits it issued for a major coal-fired power project in New Mexico, a bid that environmentalists say signals a bleak future for coal plant proposals under the Obama administration.
EPA's Environmental Appeals Board is weighing an agency request to rethink permits for the Desert Rock Energy Facility, a 1,500-megawatt plant planned for Navajo Nation land about 25 miles southwest of Farmington, N.M.
EPA told the board yesterday that the agency wanted to address several issues, including soot emissions, possible effects on endangered species and concerns about pollution-control technologies.
Environmentalists see the request as an opportunity for EPA to address legal and scientific concerns they contend were overlooked by the Bush administration, which granted the permit last July.
The facility would be the area's third power plant, joining the 2,040-megawatt Four Corners plant and the 1,800-megawatt San Juan Generating Station. Critics warn that the plant could emit hundreds of millions of tons of greenhouse gases over its lifespan, as well as pollutants that are already regulated under the Clean Air Act.
"I think that this underscores that coal plants are a bad investment and that they face significant hurdles in being built, especially under the new administration," said Nick Persampieri, an Earthjustice attorney for groups that oppose the project. "We really think this sends a signal to developers that they ought to be pushing renewable energy projects, and the Desert Rock site is well-suited for development of solar resources as well as wind."
Sithe Global Power LLC first proposed the Navajo Nation plant in 2004, only to have it stalled by permitting delays and legal battles. In January, EPA withdrew the carbon dioxide portion of its final permit for the project, saying its decision not to regulate the greenhouse gas under the Bush administration needed additional justification. The comment period on the CO2 portion of the permit ended recently, but a decision to remand the rest of the permit to EPA would mean even further delays.
Darrin Swartz-Larson, a spokesman for the EPA Region 9 office in San Francisco, said it was unclear when the appeals board would review the motion.
Jeff Holmstead, an industry attorney whose firm represents the Desert Rock developers, criticized EPA for attempting to change its policies retroactively.
"This permit application was submitted almost five years ago," Holmstead said. "Under the law, the agency was supposed to make a decision on the permit within one year, but the permitting process dragged on for several years as the company and the Navajo Nation tried to address everyone's concerns."
He added, "Finally, EPA issued a permit -- the most stringent of any such permit in the country. We are well into the appeals process, and now EPA wants the Navajo Nation and its partners to go back and start over again under different rules."
Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. also expressed disappointment that EPA's request could further stall development plans. Developers estimate that the plant would bring in more than $50 million annually for the Navajo Nation.
"This isn't just about energy," Shirley said. "This is about sovereignty. ... This is about the Navajo Nation regaining its independence by developing the financial wherewithal to take care of its own problems."
But Vickie Patton, a senior attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund, disputed the notion that coal-fired energy was the region's only available path to economic growth.
"This area has world-class renewable and clean-energy resources -- virtually unparalleled," Patton said. "And there's a pivotal opportunity for economic revitalization in an area where it is urgently needed and where it could be achieved through clean energy solutions that will be deployed on the ground faster and cheaper."
Click here to read EPA's request.