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Powering down in the Four Corners region

March 22, 2017 GMT

For decades, three coal-fired power plants have formed an imposing presence on the landscape from Page, Ariz., to Farmington, N.M., providing electricity to hundreds of thousands of homes but releasing millions of tons of pollutants from their towering smokestacks.

The plants have been blamed for haze from the Grand Canyon to the Rocky Mountains, as well as higher asthma rates and premature death in surrounding communities, government studies show. They also spew carbon dioxide, which has been linked to climate change.

But one of the plants has been partially shut down, and the other two may be closed within the next five years, another sign of the decline of the nation’s once-mighty coal industry. And while the decline means cleaner air for the Four Corners region and beyond, it also means hundreds of lost jobs for plant workers and coal miners, many of them members of the Navajo and Hopi tribes.

“Coal, in many respects, is a dead man walking,” said Jeremy Nichols with the environmental group WildEarth Guardians. “Western utilities are finally realizing there are more affordable ways of providing electricity to their customers. … If you want to get rich [as a utility], you have to stop burning coal.

“That area as a whole is going to have to face the reality that transition is upon them,” Nichols said.

Public Service Company of New Mexico, the state’s largest utility company, announced last week it was considering closing the San Juan Generating Station near Farmington as soon as 2022. It is already planning to shut down two of the plant’s four coal-fired units this year, replacing the electricity with power generated mostly from natural gas and a nuclear plant.

PNM said modeling showed the closure could be financially beneficial to it and customers and enable the company to incorporate more renewable energy into its portfolio.

The company said a little more than a third of the plant’s 280 workers are Native Americans. The plant is the only customer for the San Juan Coal Mine operated by Westmoreland Coal.

In February, owners of the Navajo Generating Station near Page voted to keep the plant open until 2019 but said it could close as soon as July of this year so reclamation work can begin. The shutdown would impact about 800 jobs. The plant is the only customer for Peabody Energy’s Kayenta Mine on the Navajo Nation.

The Navajo Nation, because of the potential lost jobs and royalties it collects from the mine, has sought to keep the generating station open through at least 2030.

Nichols said the announcement of the plant’s closure represented a sea change in the energy industry. “You can really see the dominoes begin to fall in earnest,” he said.

At the Four Corners Power Plant, south of Farmington on the Navajo Nation, only two of its five coal-burning units are operating in order to comply with federal clean air regulations. It employs 400 people — 82 percent are Native American — according to Arizona Public Service, the plant’s owner.

The planned closure of the Navajo Generating Station and the possible shutdown of the San Juan Generating Station represent major blows to a region already reeling from a downturn in oil and gas drilling.

Tom Taylor, an executive board member for Four Corners Economic Development in Farmington, said the economic upside to coal would be impossible to replace. Coal “is a very labor intensive business. It generates a lot of jobs, a lot of taxes,” he said.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye has repeatedly appealed to the Trump administration to stick to its word and prop up the coal industry.

Trump ran on promises to bring back the coal industry by rolling back mining and clean air regulations as part of his “America First” energy plan.

“We are asking the Trump administration and his support of coal be utilized to possibly waive other requirements that are causing the two generators of San Juan to close in 2017,” Begaye said in a statement. “These requirements impact both the San Juan power plant and the Navajo Generating Station. The waiver of these requirements will help us maintain these jobs.

“We understand we are in challenging times where natural gas is impacting the numbers and ongoing operations for all coal-powered power plants,” he said.

Owners of the Navajo Generating Station have indicated they plan to replace the lost power with natural-gas generated electricity.

Begaye asked PNM to help employees find new jobs. The company said it doesn’t anticipate job losses as a result of the partial shutdown of the San Juan plant this year. The average pay is $88,000, according to a PNM spokesman.

The San Juan, Four Corners and Navajo plants have all had to install pollution-capturing measures or shut down coal-producing units to comply with federal haze regulations under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Air Act.

But most agree the energy market has more to do with the cost of coal than regulations.

“Natural gas is so inexpensive it is hard [for any power plant] to compete,” said Rep. James Strickler, R-Farmington.

“The person on the street, they feel it, they feel the downturn in the economy up here,” he said. “We have lost a lot out here and this is something we don’t need.”

San Juan County has lost 11,000 people and 6,000 jobs since 2010, largely the result of job losses in oil, gas and coal, Strickler said.

The county had an 8.3 percent unemployment rate as of December, higher than New Mexico as whole. Unemployment rates are even higher on the Navajo reservation, where more than 40 percent of the population is unemployed.

Strickler said the community is hoping PNM keeps the San Juan plant and the coal mine open because the alternative “would be absolutely catastrophic.”

Taylor said the city of Farmington is working to understand how the San Juan plant closure might affect the region. Because the city has a 10 percent share in one of the coal-generating units, he called the impact complex and said he will know more once PNM’s plans solidify, which is expected to take at least a year.

Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, who represents part of San Juan County, said PNM should have better anticipated changes in the energy market.

“If, in fact, the trend is going from oil, gas and coal to renewable energy,” he said, “how do we do that in a way to put people’s livelihoods less at stake than they are today?”

Lente said that is the question PNM should have been asking.

“In my mind, it’s poor planning,” he said. “Years back we should have been evolving in a way to looking toward the future and now we are absolutely feeling the effects.”

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or rmoss@sfnewmexican.com.