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NM Wrestles with Limiting Greenhouse Gas Emissions

January 31, 2012

FARMINGTON, N.M. - New Mexico's power plants are part of a national debate over what to do about the greenhouse gases they emit, and whether the technology is available to curtail those emissions quickly enough.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says power plants are the source of nearly three-quarters of the nation's greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources, as opposed to those from vehicles, and carbon dioxide or CO2 is one of those pollutants the EPA wants to limit.

In New Mexico, CO2 comes primarily from the Four Corners Power Plant and the San Juan Generating Station. At the group Environment New Mexico, Sanders Moore says curbing emissions is critical, because New Mexico is one state that already experiences the most severe effects of climate change.

"The more New Mexico warms, there'll be less snowfall and that snow melt will occur earlier in the year and then we will experience an earlier, warmer period without as much precipitation. So it will put a strain on our crops and our rangelands and our animals, upon which we depend."

Meantime, public utilities that rely on coal-fired power are wrestling with how to diminish carbon dioxide emissions.

Don Brown, utility operations spokesman for the Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM), says CO2 emissions can't be dealt with in the same ways as mercury and other toxic gases. He says it's a challenge that every utility in the country faces if it uses fossil fuels.

"Today there is no large-scale, commercially-available technology in the marketplace to reduce carbon from an existing plant. There are tests going on; there's one by We Energies in Wisconsin in which they're injecting ammonia into the production process and removing carbon, but it's on a much smaller scale."

Brown says whatever pollution cleanup plan is put in place, he doesn't want PNM to go it alone. To meaningfully address the issue, he says, plans must be implemented on a national and even global scale, not on a state-by-state basis.

Another possibility for limiting greenhouse gas emissions is known as "cap-and-trade." Sanders Moore says the system of giving companies credits, based on their pollution output, that they can buy and sell, rewards those plants that make the effort to clean up their emissions, and has already been proven to work.

"The cap-and-trade system that has been discussed at the national level is a very similar program as the acid rain program. President Bush Senior created that system, and it drastically reduced the amount of acid rain pollution, within years."

Whether it's new technology or a cap-and-trade system, Moore believes there will be continued obstacles, mostly in Congress.

"The EPA has been really good about publishing new regulations and creating new safeguards that protect us from pollutants, and we've seen them challenged in Congress. And so, a lot of the gains we've made are still up in the air."

Moore says Environment New Mexico does not see an end to coal-generated power in the near future, but is dedicated to helping move the state toward renewable energy.

Beth Blakeman, Public News Service - NM