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Home / Articles / News / News /  Xcel feels the burn
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Thursday, April 15,2010

Xcel feels the burn

By Pamela White

A Q&A with Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth GuardiansWhen it comes to protecting the environment, sometimes you need to work with what you have.

No one knows this better than Jeremy Nichols, the climate and energy program director with the WildEarth Guardians. While folks in Washington, D.C., argue over global climate change and the merits and drawbacks of “cap and trade,” Nichols sifts through hundreds of pages of fine print and legalese, looking for ways to decrease pollution and combat global warming with laws that are already on the books.

Nichols is spearheading the effort to retire three of Xcel’s coal-fired power plants in Colorado, having filed petitions calling on the Environmental Protection Agency to overturn the operating permits of Xcel’s Valmont, Cherokee and Hayden power plants — among the biggest producers of greenhouse gases in the state.

Although permits are issued by the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment, they must be approved by the EPA because the issues they address are matters of federal law. Citizens have the right to appeal EPA rulings. Making the most of that right, Nichols has pieced together a persuasive argument that cobbles a new EPA approach to carbon dioxide together with state law, as well as Executive Order D 004-08, issued by Gov. Bill Ritter in 2008, to assert that the reduction of carbon dioxide must be considered during the permit renewal process.

On the federal side is a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that greenhouse gases fall within the Clean Air Act’s definition of a pollutant and EPA Director Lisa Jackson’s memo stating that the EPA would reconsider a Bushera policy of not regulating carbon dioxide.

In Colorado, Gov. Ritter’s executive order set a goal of reducing greenhouse gases statewide 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050 — proof, Nichols argues in an online blog, that the governor intended for carbon dioxide to be reduced and regulated. Further, he has pointed to a state definition of “pollution” that clearly seems to include carbon dioxide.

Nichols, 30, isn’t just playing a game of semantics; he means business. Just ask the folks at Cemex, the cement company outside Lyons. The EPA sided with him in part in a lawsuit he filed in 2008, calling on the EPA to overturn the state-issued air permit for Cemex because the state had not taken the necessary steps to make sure the aging plant had up-to-date pollution controls. Cemex has a long history of air-quality control problems and has faced opposition from its neighbors for more than a decade.

The petitions against Xcel’s permits are only the latest salvo by Nicholas and others to retire the plants or require Xcel to transition to clean renewable energy, like wind and solar.

Last summer, more than 300 people gathered at the Boulder County Courthouse asking the state’s Air Quality Control Commission to not renew Xcel’s permit. In November, protesters dressed as clowns visited Gov. Ritter’s office asking him to “stop clowning around” when it comes to global climate change and greenhouse gases. Now, as Boulder’s City Council eyes renewing its 20-year franchise agreement with Xcel — the current agreement expires in August — many local residents, including citizens serving on the Decarbonization Tech Team, are urging council members to take a hard line with Xcel over renewable energy, even if that means refusing to sign a new franchise agreement.

Boulder Weekly caught up with Nichols to ask him about the petitions against Xcel and the apparent seachange taking place in the public’s mind with regard to coal-fired energy.

Boulder Weekly: Is it our imagination, or are times getting harder for Xcel?

Jeremy Nichols: There’s been this convergence lately with House Bill 1365. As you know there’s been a groundswell of public concern over Valmont [power plant], not just in terms of climate impacts, but also in terms of air quality impacts — mercury, ozone, haze. Nobody likes a filthy smokestack in their neighborhood. People have been pushing over the past year for changes — for transition away from coal and toward a cleaner energy source.

We have a right under the Clean Air Act to challenge that decision, and so we’ve done that. We’ve asked the administrator of the EPA to step in and veto the permit. We’re trying to keep that pressure exerted against Xcel until they finally do the right thing.

This isn’t frivolous. There are genuine issues here. We’re either going to get those issues dealt with through the law and regulations that we have on the books now, or Xcel can decide to deal with it. Either way, we’re going to get the change that we want.

BW: Tell us about your latest petitions against Xcel’s three coal-fired plants.

JN: [They are] a continuation of our effort to challenge their permit, to overturn it, to hold them accountable to addressing carbon dioxide emissions and other harmful air pollutants.

This fits into the story that has helped House Bill 1365 pass — these things are filthy, they need to be cleaned up, and one way to do that is to give Xcel some incentive to convert it to natural gas.

BW: Speaking of HB 1365, there’s been some debate over whether it truly accomplishes anything. What are your thoughts?

JN: HB 1365 doesn’t mandate a result. … HB 1365 was a big step forward, but it doesn’t solve the problem entirely — it’s converting the Valmont plant to natural gas on Xcel’s terms.

We have a massive environmental liability here that’s mounting against Xcel. I don’t know why we have to address these coal-fired power plants on Xcel’s terms. Nevertheless, this is what we have, and so how do we make the best of it?

From our standpoint, we continue to keep the pressure on the plant. The petitions are the latest volley in that effort. We’re trying to do everything we can to scrutinize their emissions, to strengthen their permit to force them to spend more time and money reducing emissions so that it looks more attractive for them to transition away from coal.

We’re anxiously awaiting getting involved in the PUC process and the clean air processes to make sure this works out to everybody’s benefit, not just Xcel’s.

BW: There seems to be a groundswell of activism with regard to Xcel. Where is that coming from?

JN: It developed over 2009, but it really started at the end of 2008. There was growing concern over Valmont and its impact on Boulder’s ability to meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals, and people seeing opportunities to exert pressure on Xcel through the franchise agreement that is being negotiated between Boulder and Xcel, and their permit coming up for renewal.

These opportunities kind of coalesced around this time period and emboldened people to become more concerned and to say, “Oh, yeah, we can argue that this plant should be shut down because we have all these points of leverage, and we just need to work them to the fullest extent possible.”

Two years ago, people were not talking about shutting down coal-fired power plants, and Xcel was not facing the pressure it’s facing right now to move away from coal.

BW: Denver has faced some challenges with regard to ozone in particular. How does that fit in with Xcel and coal-fired electricity?

JN: EPA is going to be strengthening the ozone standards, but to meet those standards it’s going to require moving away from coal. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it.

If you break down the sources of these emissions, the smokestacks of Xcel’s coal-fired power plants are some of the biggest sources of NOX emissions in the Denver metro area. That’s true nationwide, too.

To meet our ozone challenges, we have to reduce NOX emissions, and to reduce NOX emissions we have to get rid of these coal-fired power plants.

BW: Will HB 1365 have an impact on ozone problems in the Denver metro area?

JN: Shifting to natural gas will reduce NOX, but it’s not going to be the long-term solution. This isn’t a benign gas. It’s still nasty. It still produces NOX emissions.

Natural gas is a better choice in the short term, but that’s like saying that light cigarettes are healthier than regular cigarettes. It’s true in some ways, but you have to look at the bigger picture. Do we want to stake our future on fossil fuels in the long term? I think most people would say no.

And there are costs associated with drilling for natural gas. It’s groundwater contamination. It’s air pollution. Western Colorado is experiencing air pollution levels that are similar to those that we experience on the Front Range, and it’s because of this massive increase in industrial development tied to oil and gas drilling. It’s a zero-sum game no matter what, but it’s a matter of what trade-offs you are comfortable with. I think folks see natural gas as a comfortable trade in the short term.

BW: Recently, the state’s renewable energy goal was increased to 30 percent. Together, these changes seem like a big deal.

JN: This is a big change. This is watershed moment. And I think it’s because of all the various efforts that have been going on to put pressure on Valmont and on elected officials and on Xcel, too. When you get down to it, Xcel has an image to protect. When they keep talking about how they’re the greenest utility and yet they’re burning more coal than ever, I think the public stops believing that.

They’ve gotten away with greenwashing for far too long. They’ve got Commanche III coming on line, and that’s going to offset all their greenhouse gas reductions and actually lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. That’s not green. That’s the opposite of green.

The important thing is going to be making sure our renewable energy standard continues to get higher. Bumping it up to 30 percent was a big step, but we’re not going to be getting where we want to go until it’s 60 percent or 70 or 80 percent.

Ultimately our goal is a 100-percent renewable future. Doing everything we can to leverage our current environmental laws and regulation to force Xcel to realize that clean energy is the only viable solution here.

BW: What is your goal with regard to Xcel’s Valmont plant?

JN: We would rather see it shut down than burning natural gas. What we want to see is not Xcel investing in another fossil fuel. We’re going to keep pushing for Xcel to shutter the plant.

But retiring Valmont doesn’t mean turning the switch off and calling it good. What it means is getting the renewable energy sources on line to shut down Valmont and have a reliable clean source of energy there to offset it.

In the near term, they can flip the switch and convert it to natural gas tomorrow. In the short term, I think why the hell shouldn’t we do that? It’s time to quit coal cold turkey, and if that means that for a while we have to rely on some natural gas to get to where we want to get to, that’s what we have to do. But, ultimately, we need to get away from fossil fuels entirely.

For more information on WildEarth Guardians, go to www.wildearthguardians.org.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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