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Power Plants U S Mexico Border*

June 15, 2002 Talk about it E-mail story Print

Power Plants Sprouting at Border

Energy: In Mexico, they can emit more pollution than in U.S. Backers tout chance to serve 2 nations.


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By GARY POLAKOVIC , Times Staff Writer

The Mexican border, comparatively free of red tape and smog regulations, is becoming a magnet for U.S. power plants, which will be able to emit up to 10 times more pollution than is allowed under California law.

Sixteen big generating stations are under construction, being expanded or planned on both sides of the 1,500-mile-long border from California to Texas, with the majority of them in Mexico. Proponents of the trend see it as a natural response to favorable economic conditions--including cheap labor--as well as an opportunity to serve markets in the United States and Mexico.

Critics in Congress, air quality agencies and the environmental movement say companies are saving millions of dollars by evading stringent emissions controls that would apply if the plants were being built north of the border.

Some plants are being erected in sparsely populated areas. But in at least one location, south of Imperial County in Mexicali, about 1 million people--mostly poor Latinos--on both sides of the border could be exposed to plant emissions.

"Plants in Mexico are being proposed without any add-on controls. It's a convenient back door to put projects that are less palatable in the U.S.A.," said Bill Powers, a San Diego air quality consultant and spokesman for the Border Power Plant Working Group, which has filed a lawsuit to force more rigorous power plant cleanups along the border. Add-on controls capture or treat emissions before they leave plant smokestacks.

A microcosm of global trade, Mexico's expanding power plant industry will burn natural gas arriving via pipeline from Canada and the United States or from bulk marine terminals receiving shipments from South America and Asia.

The electricity will flow into a grid to be used anywhere between Mexico City and the Pacific Northwest. Indeed, an increasing amount of power will be needed just along the border as it becomes home to more people and industries.

"We certainly see heightened interest in projects along the border between Baja and California as investors look for ways to reach the California market and develop the northern reaches of Mexico. We're seeing a lot more energy integration across the border," said Jed Bailey, associate director for Latin America for Cambridge Energy Research Associates, a research and consulting firm.

"Construction costs are low in Mexico; at the border there is more availability of fuel than in the rest of the country; and a company can receive a permit in six to eight months. That is why they are building here," said Alberto Ramos Elorduy, deputy director of Mexico's Federal Electricity Commission.

Two power plants in particular--being built by U.S. companies near Mexicali, three miles south of the border--are drawing intense opposition. Massachusetts-based InterGen Energy Inc. is erecting its La Rosita plant, a 1,065-megawatt facility that will cost $748 million and produce enough electricity for 1.5 million households. Nearby, Sempra Energy Resources is building Termoelectrica de Mexicali, a $350-million plant.

Officials of the companies downplay air pollution concerns. They say the plants employ some clean technologies to reduce emissions and are a vast improvement over older coal-fired generators still in use in some places in the United States.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency acknowledges that the Sempra plant will perform nearly as cleanly as one built on U.S. soil. Both facilities will burn natural gas, the cleanest fossil fuel available, and Mexican authorities say they will be the least polluting in that country.

"We did not come to Mexicali to avoid U.S. regulations. When we are building something this close to the border, we wanted to make sure we were not going to have environmental impacts on the other side of the border," said John Foster, InterGen's senior vice president for Latin America

Yet even the most advanced plants in Mexico do not meet the stringent pollution controls of the U.S. Clean Air Act. Unlike a new power plant built in the United States, those in Mexico are not required to "offset" their emissions. Offsets are pollution reductions a company pays for at nearby factories, businesses or power plants to more than compensate for the added emissions created by the new power plant.

The InterGen plant will use four turbines to generate electricity. Two units will produce power for Mexico and will have no add-on emissions control devices. The two that feed energy to the U.S. will be fitted with the devices. The two uncontrolled units will be allowed to emit about 10 times more nitrogen oxide than would be permitted if the plant were built in California, according to the EPA.

Even the two units with add-on controls will emit about twice as much smog-forming gas as a comparable California plant, the EPA estimates. Nitrogen oxides contribute to ozone and tiny particles that obscure the sky and have been linked to asthma, heart attacks and premature death.

"We are very concerned about the emissions," said Jack Broadbent, director of air programs for the EPA's Southwest office. "We believe they will negatively impact air quality" in California's southeastern desert.

But the EPA's jurisdiction ends at the border. The Energy Department issued permits for cross-border electrical transmission lines but says it cannot regulate the design or operation of power plants in Mexico, although environmentalists have filed a lawsuit disputing that.

"It just highlights the disconnect between those in the Bush administration who look at the environmental factors and those who are interested in promoting the business interests of energy companies," said Martin Wagner, director of international projects for the Oakland-based Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund.

Imperial County in California and neighboring Mexicali just across the border would probably bear the brunt of the pollution. Mexicali is a fast-growing city of 800,000.

A patchwork of farms and small towns spanning 580,000 acres, the Imperial Valley produces much of the nation's wintertime vegetables under a pall of some of the country's dirtiest air. The county violates national air quality standards for soot and smoke an average of one day in three, as well as occasionally exceeding limits for carbon monoxide and ozone.It is one of the poorest regions of the state, and about 85% of the population is Latino. Health officials say the incidence of respiratory disease there is twice the statewide average.

In a recent assessment, the EPA concluded that smoke and dust from various sources blowing across the border from Mexicali are primarily responsible for pollution violations in Imperial County. Indeed, the county would have met U.S. air quality standards eight years ago had pollution from Mexico been checked, according to the EPA.

The Imperial County Air Pollution Control District estimates that the InterGen plant alone will release about 4,000 tons of pollutants into the region annually, although company officials say the facility will not have a serious effect on California.

"We have some serious heartburn about the InterGen plant," said Steve Birdsall, air pollution control officer for Imperial County. "It's going to have a significant impact on the Imperial Valley."

Despite those concerns, expansion of energy resources in Mexico is a priority for the Bush administration and Mexico's leaders. It is precisely the sort of development envisioned when the North American Free Trade Agreement was approved to promote closer economic integration among Mexico, the United States and Canada.

The Mexican government has encouraged foreign companies to develop energy resources; the nation potentially faces blackouts nationwide by 2004 unless more power plants are built, analysts say. Regulators say the country needs about 40 mid-size plants in the next eight years.

Seizing the opportunity, a Spanish company has decided to build a 500-megawatt plant in Agua Prieta just south of the Arizona border town of Douglas; a French utility seeks to build two power plants near Matamoros a few miles south of Brownsville, Texas; and a Swiss-Swedish consortium is expanding a power plant near Ensenada, according to the Border Power Plant Working Group and Mexican authorities.

The national energy plan that President Bush unveiled last year calls for accelerating cross-border energy investment, improving electricity grids and expanding oil and gas pipelines.

Earlier this year, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved construction of a 215-mile gas pipeline extension from Arizona to Tijuana to deliver the fuel from Canada and the United States to power plants along the border. The pipeline is expected to be completed this summer.

In December, Bush approved permits for cross-border power transmission lines to reach the controversial power plants in Baja. An Energy Department assessment concluded that the project will not significantly affect air quality along the border, but critics say the study was cursory and are calling for a more detailed review.

The Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, Wild Earth Advocates and the Border Power Plant Working Group sued in March to block completion of the electricity transmission lines until a detailed study of power plant emissions is done.

In Congress, California lawmakers probably face an uphill fight to win passage of bills, introduced last week, to prohibit U.S.-produced natural gas from being used in power plants in Baja until the plants comply with California emissions standards. The legislation is sponsored by Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer in the Senate and Republican Duncan Hunter of Alpine in the House.

"It is not unreasonable to ensure that companies making money in the California energy market meet strict environmental standards," Feinstein said. "This legislation will help ensure power plants along the border employ the best technology available to control pollution in Southern California and other border areas." 'It is not unreasonable to ensure that companies making money in the California energy market meet strict environmental standards.'

Sen. Dianne Feinstein,

on her bill aimed at forcing power plants in Baja California, such as this one going up near Mexicali, to meet California emissions rules
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