New Coal Plants on the Drawing Board

  • Members of Dooda Desert Rock. From left, Alice Gilmore, Elouise Brown, her son JC, her brother-in-law and her grandfather, Julius Gilmore. Her grandparents Alice and Julius lived their whole lives just down the hill from here. They would have to be relocated if the power plant is built. (Photo by Daniel Kraker)

To meet the country’s growing demand for
energy, there are about 150 new
coal-burning power plants on the drawing board.
But not everyone is thrilled about relying on
coal as a future energy source. Daniel Kraker
takes us to a place where people have
lived next to these power plants for decades.
And now they’re fighting plans to build another


There’s been a lot of talk about developing clean energy sources, like wind and solar
power. But coal is still king. And to meet the country’s growing energy demand there are
about 150 new coal fired power plants on the drawing board. But not everyone is thrilled
about relying on coal as a significant future energy source. Daniel Kraker takes us to a
place where people have lived next to these power plants for decades. And now they’re
fighting plans to build another one:

In northwest New Mexico, the Navajo Indian reservation is a spectacular other-worldly
landscape of mesas and giant sandstone rock formations jutting out of the red earth.
Underneath the ground are huge reserves of coal. This is where the Navajo government
and a company called Sithe Global Power want to build a 1500-megawatt power plant
called Desert Rock, and it’s here where a small group of Navajos who oppose the project
have set up their base of resistance.

“It’s called Dooda Desert Rock, Dooda means ‘no’ in Navajo.”

That’s Elouise Brown. She’s president of a group of Navajos who live near the proposed
construction site. They’ve been camped out there since December, in a small plywood
shack attached to a trailer. Brown says she’s quit her day job to protest the project full-time:

“I think this whole coal plant is just, people are just looking at dollar signs. They don’t
care about their people, they don’t care about their mother earth, global warming…And I
think it’s about time that we be heard, we’re going to stand here and stay here until
somebody listens to us.”

Brown walks outside the shack with her son and grandfather, Julius Gilmore. He points
out in Navajo where the power plant would go.

“You see the drill down there? It’s just northeast of there…”

“And that’s your grandfather’s house right there?”


Her grandparents have spent their entire life there. They’ll have to be relocated if the plant
is built.

From the protestors’ camp the tips of two giant smokestacks are visible. The Four Corners
and San Juan Generating Stations were built in the 1970s during the last big construction
wave of coal fired plants. Desert Rock would be the third power plant in this area. Frank
Maisano is a spokesman for Desert Rock:

“Already in the region there is 2300 megawatts of new requests for power, and that is just to
satisfy massive growth in the region right now. Those who say that, ‘Oh we just won’t use
coal.’ They’re not looking at the larger picture, which says we really do have to have a
balanced approach, not just that we don’t like this one little carbon dioxide emission that
comes from this plant.”

Maisano says Desert Rock would be one of the cleanest coal fired plants in the country.
He says scrubbers would remove many of the harmful chemicals that can lead to health
problems and smog. And it would cough up less carbon dioxide than the older generation
of coal-fired plants.

“It’s a higher heat rate so that the coal is heated up so it combusts more completely,
basically what you’re doing is, you’re getting more efficiency, you’re getting more
megawatts out of less coal.”

Still, Desert Rock would emit about 10 million tons of CO2 every year. That’s only about
15% less than older plants. There are 150 coal fired plants like this one on the
drawing board across the country, and 40 of those are likely to start up in the next five

Many environmentalists worry if Desert Rock and other coal plants are built, we’ll be
saddling the country with growing greenhouse gas emissions for decades to come.
Roger Clark is Air and Energy Director with the Grand Canyon Trust:

“As a nation we should consider a ban on all new coal plants. We’re at a point now where
we need to start reversing the amount of greenhouse gasses that we’re putting into the
atmosphere. It’s 19th century technology here in the 21st century that is something that we
don’t need.”

The country’s population is growing, and our thirst for energy is growing right along with
it. Roger Clark and others believe we can meet that growing demand through energy
efficiency improvements, combined with investments in renewables.

Here in the southwest, the Navajo Nation is in the early stages of developing a wind farm.
But that would only produce 200 megawatts of electricity; Desert Rock would be seven
times that size.

The tribe’s primary focus in this debate isn’t CO2 emissions, or climate change, it’s
revenue. Desert Rock would generate an estimated 50 million dollars annually for the
impoverished tribe. If the plant gets its final environmental approvals, and it isn’t taken to
court, that money could start flowing as early as 2012.

For the Environment Report, I’m Daniel Kraker

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