Coming Clean With Coal

09/21/2010 12:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Hello, my name is Jeremy Nichols. I'm an environmentalist. And I don't support Clean Air-Clean Jobs.

This is tough to admit, and I'm sure it's going to draw the ire of some of my colleagues. And sure, it might feed into the coal industry's opposition to Xcel's latest plans to retire coal-fired power plants here in Colorado.

But I have to be honest with myself, my friends, and my fellow citizens. I have to come clean.

You see, I can't with any good conscious support Xcel Energy's latest plans for one simple reason: because it fails to achieve the greenhouse gas reduction targets we need to meaningfully confront global warming.

Now, I won't deny that Xcel's Clean Air-Clean Jobs plan has some good elements. Ultimately, four of the company's seven coal-fired power plants in Colorado will be retired or repowered to natural gas, including the Valmont plant in Boulder and the Cherokee plant in Denver.

This is good news. Xcel's coal-fired power plants here in Colorado are the largest sources of toxic air pollution in the State. On top of that, they're the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, making them our biggest statewide contributor to global warming.

No wonder that in 2008, Governor Ritter called on Xcel to reduce it's carbon dioxide 20% below 2005 levels by 2020. In doing so, the Governor recognized the benefits of reducing carbon dioxide would mean "reduced air pollution, new jobs, as well as a more diverse, and therefore less volatile, energy supply portfolio."

It's on this latter point where Governor Ritter and I agree: the metrics matter. But in this case, the metrics don't add up. Xcel's own numbers show that under its Clean Air-Clean Jobs plan, carbon dioxide will only be reduced in Colorado by around 8% come 2020.

Let's do the math. In 2005, carbon dioxide emissions from the company's power plants in Colorado totaled 25.74 million tons. That includes carbon dioxide from both the company's coal and gas-fired power plants and is based on Xcel's own data reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Air Markets Division.

Under Clean Air-Clean Jobs, Xcel intends to retire the Arapahoe, Cameo, Cherokee, and Valmont coal-fired power plants by 2022. In 2005, these plants released around 8.92 million tons of carbon dioxide annually.

On first glance, an 8.92 million ton reduction in carbon dioxide from a 25.74 million ton baseline looks pretty good. But here's the rub: this year, Xcel fired up its brand new, 750 megawatt Comanche 3 coal-fired power plant in Pueblo. According to Colorado's most recent greenhouse gas inventory, Comanche 3 will increase carbon dioxide by 4.83 million tons every year.

This means that by 2022, the actual reduction in carbon dioxide will be closer to 4.09 million tons, only around a 15% reduction.

But the bad news doesn't end there. Xcel plans on adding 994 megawatts of new natural gas-fired generating capacity by 2022. Although cleaner than coal, this added capacity will still release more than two million tons of carbon dioxide (that's based on Xcel's own assumption that gas burning will increase by 48,792,000 million Btus and that carbon dioxide emissions will equal 119 pounds/million Btu).

That means that Clean Air-Clean Jobs will achieve a net reduction of only around 2.0 million tons of carbon dioxide--or an 8% total reduction.

Now don't get me wrong, 8% is progress, but at this rate, we won't achieve the 20% reduction in carbon dioxide we need until 2035. This is significant because ultimately, Governor Ritter called for an 80% reduction in greenhouse gases below 2005 levels by 2050. At this rate, we won't meet this reduction target for 100 years. That's a long time to wait.

And with the Nation's leading scientists earlier this year urging quick action to reduce greenhouse gases, that's an especially long time to wait.

So what's the deal? Xcel actually claims its plans will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 30%. At best, this is a major stretch. At worst, it's deceptive accounting.

Xcel claims the lion's share of its reductions are going to come from discontinuing power purchase agreements. Yet discontinuing power purchase agreements doesn't amount to any actual reduction in greenhouse gases. Simply because Xcel stops buying electricity from other producers doesn't mean those carbon dioxide emissions magically disappear.

Take, for example, the company's plans to discontinue purchasing 400 megawatts of coal-fired electricity from power plants owned by Tri-State and Basin Electric. The fact is that whether or not Xcel purchases power from these companies, they will, unfortunately, continue to burn coal. Xcel's plans will no more reduce greenhouse gas emissions than my decision to stop shopping at Wal-Mart will stop the production of cheap plastic trinkets.

What matters are the greenhouse gases released directly from the power plants they own and control right here in Colorado. What matters are real world reductions in carbon dioxide from Xcel's real world power plants.

And in the real world, Xcel's plans just won't cut it.

So, I can't support Clean Air-Clean Jobs. I can't support a plan that claims victory in the fight against global warming when it can't even live up to the modest greenhouse gas reduction targets set by Colorado's own Governor. And I can't support Xcel's attempts to cover up this fact.

Just like any teacher who expects their students to achieve straight A's, I won't settle for a failing grade. And, just like any environmentalist who measures progress based the metrics that matter, I won't settle until Xcel makes greater strides to transition away from coal toward cleaner energy.

It's time to come clean.