Coal Scrap

A power-plant debate heats up in Cochise County

As destinations go, Bowie is a yawn. Stretching along Interstate 10 east of Willcox, this sleepy scrawl of modest homes is anchored by two RV parks and the Dairy Burger, where long-haulers stop to jaw over coffee. So mobile is the town's tiny population that even Arizona's head-counters don't keep track.

Nor is Bowie an economic powerhouse. Its primary fiscal drivers are snowbirds, a store selling wine and nuts, and a barbershop.

But depending on how things go, this laconic burg might land on the cutting edge of energy technology. Or it could become the toxic dumping grounds for a speculative nightmare.

These twin possibilities date to 2001, when a Phoenix firm announced plans for a 1,000-megawatt gas-fired power plant here. According to the SouthWestern Power Group, hundreds of locals would help build the plant. Hundreds more would make it run.

Then natural gas prices shot through the roof, and SouthWestern's project hit the skids. But today, the company is back, with the same promises of steady work and good pay. Instead of clean-burning gas, however, this revamped plant would run on coal. And it would use a controversial but potentially less-polluting technology called integrated gasification combined cycle, or IGCC.

Here's how it works: The 600-megawatt plant would blend water and pulverized coal into slurry, which would then be exposed to hot oxygen, creating hydrogen-carbon monoxide synthesis gas. This "syngas" can then be burned for power.

The largely unproven concept does have its detractors. "I think the whole thing is a boondoggle," says Cochise County Supervisor Paul Newman. "It's the first generation of this technology. The plant has a 30-year lifespan. We're going to have hazardous waste and pollute the air at the same time, all to create energy that's too expensive to sell to any market. It's foolish."

While IGCC plants are ostensibly much cleaner than traditional coal plants, they're a far cry from natural gas. They can still emit tons of carbon dioxide--a prime global-warming culprit--along with nasty toxins such as sulfur and mercury. And they're quite pricey, costing up to $1 billion per plant, more if extra pollution controls are added.

Among Cochise County's three supervisors, Newman is alone in putting the brakes on this project. And that hasn't won him many fans among Bowie's job-hungry residents. Meanwhile, reports have SouthWestern hosting schmoozy Bowie barbecues and making big promises.

To counter such glad-handing, Newman organized his own town-hall meeting earlier this month. The crowd included plenty of locals, along with SouthWestern officials and their PR flaks from the Copper State Consulting Group. Making things cozy, Copper State is owned by longtime Phoenix power-player and former state lawmaker Stan Barnes.

Conspicuously absent were Cochise County Supervisors Pat Call and Richard Searle. Both men reportedly support the plant. Neither returned phone calls from the Tucson Weekly seeking comment.

David Getts is SouthWestern's general manager. At the meeting, he called the project a fresh idea. "Our goal is to get emissions from Bowie as close as possible to natural gas," he told a reporter with Wick Communications (Tucson Weekly's parent company). But gauging the plant's impact "depends on how you measure it and try to fit it in the environmental envelope."

But just how tidy is IGCC's environmental envelope? "It is better than traditional coal in some ways," says Michael Gregory, director of Bisbee-based Arizona Toxics Information. "But it's obviously nowhere near natural gas in terms of (low) pollution."

While proponents argue that IGCC allows for toxins to be captured before entering the atmosphere, another concern is more intractable. "Like with any power plant, there are the global-warming issues," says Gregory. "That's what everyone is looking at these days."

SouthWestern pledges to minimize emissions of carbon dioxide, or CO2, by "sequestering" the gas in various ways, including pumping it into greenhouses for plant cultivation. But skeptics says such greenhouse schemes will collect only about 30 percent of the CO2 produced, while tons more will still be released into the air.

"It comes down to whether sequestration is a viable technology," says Nancy LaPlaca, a leading anti-coal activist based in Denver. "With coal plants producing 40 percent of the nation's CO2--roughly equal to the transportation sector--we can't be putting more CO2 into the atmosphere."

While that may seem like a no-brainer, it's not. Actually, the Bowie project and other proposed coal plants have many things going for them. For one, coal is plentiful--America has an estimated 300 years of reserves. And coal has many friends in high places, from President Bush on down. How good are those friends? Just recently, the Bush administration solidified a law to safeguard mountaintop mining, an appalling coal-gleaning practice that strangles the Appalachian landscape with debris (see Hightower, Page 9).

And across the country, governors of coal-producing states have embraced IGCC technology. In January 2006, the Western Governors' Association called for the development of new coal plants with the ability to sequester more than half of their CO2 emissions. The governors also pledged subsidies and other incentives for the expansion of coal power, such as streamlining permit processes and making sure experimental plants can achieve full cost recovery.

In Arizona, coal's critics charge Gov. Janet Napolitano with joining that herd--well before all the facts are in. "Nationally, governors have taken a position favoring experimentation with coal," says one industry observer, who asked not be identified. "And I think Gov. Napolitano, given her high national profile, wouldn't be seen in a good light by her friends--very powerful Western governors--if she dissed them on that level."

If the governor is actively promoting the coal industry, "that would be news to me," says Napolitano spokeswoman Jeanine L'Ecuyer, "although she has interest in some alternative coal options."

Nor are Arizona regulators involved at this point in the Bowie project. Since SouthWestern hasn't yet applied for a permit, "We don't have a dog in this fight," says Mark Shaffer, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

Since Bowie's original gas plant was long ago given a green light by the Arizona Corporation Commission, the updated plant won't require a full-blown review process. However, commissioners would still need to approve the plant's final plans, says Lace Collins, an ACC government affairs consultant.

So in little Bowie, the battle over this plant may come down to a simple zoning decision, expected to arrive before Cochise County supervisors this fall. And that curses Newman with plenty of sleepless nights, spent counting smokestacks.

"I don't look forward to making a decision," he says, "on whether I'll be the guy to start dirtying up Cochise County's pristine skies."