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Power Plants Sprouting at Border

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

June 15, 2002|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.

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