c o m m e n t a r
Powering up the Border: What’s the Rush?
by Dick Kamp | September 5, 2001
The refrains are overly familiar. "We’re in a power crisis," is heard on both the U.S. and Mexican sides of the border. "The power companies are a cartel manipulating us along with the Bush administration," rings out from the U.S. side. But citizens are also responding in new ways to the energy policies that have led to these cries.
In 2000-2001, those policies have meant an explosion of plans for new, combined-cycle, gas power plants in border states in both countries.This marks the latest phase of a campaign begun nearly a decade ago to create a continent-wide grid allowing free trade in electricity with power farms that export anywhere. It is also the result of Mexico’s legitimate effort to expand its domestic generating capacity.
Many of the slated facilities are in the EPA’s Region 9 border area,
which covers parts of Arizona and California. At least 16 others are in
the interior of Arizona, and nine more are planned for New Mexico.
According to the Arizona Department of Water Resources, the state has
permits approved and under consideration for wet-cooled, combined-cycle
gas plants that would require tens of thousands of acre feet of reclaimed
and fresh water, even though local energy needs are not an issue, since
the state’s facilities already provide 40% more than peak needs.
South of the border, new power plants and major expansions are being
readied in three locations along the Sonora border, and in at least five
along the Baja California border, where Mexicali is the most impacted
site, with at least three planned facilities.
In addition, Mexico now has power plants for the sole purpose of exporting
energy—unregulated by the Mexican Federal Electricity Commission—a
Faced with these rapid changes, a wide spectrum of border community members
responding to concerns in Baja California and California are leading a
charge to demand a different set of rules for energy development in the
region. They are calling for "sustainable" power plants in this
new free-trade environment—not electricity expansion motivated by
fast-and-easy environmental permits and cheap labor.
Arizona and New Mexico residents need to sit up and take notice—and
seek similar guidelines.
The proponents, joined in the binational Border Power Plant Working Group,
directed a letter to the secretaries of state, environment, and energy
of both the United States and Mexico requesting they begin discussions
at their Sept. 4-5 Binational Commission meeting in Washington, DC, to
require technologies and programs for new power plants located on the
Mexican side of the border.
The working group called for measures that would keep the environmental
impact of new power generation in the region as close as possible to zero
The specific demands are for:
Dry cooling instead of wet cooling at inland power plants to reduce
water use by approximately 95% and to reduce dissolved solids that cooling
Best-available NOx and CO technology; and
Investments in cleanup for older power plants in the region to offset
increases in emissions from new development.
California border congressional representatives are supportive of the
effort. Citizens in Arizona, Sonora, and New Mexico are approaching their
elected officials. Meanwhile, political support in Baja California is
Those of us who live and work on the border know that no matter where
you place the blame, scarce—and often polluted—water and marginally
breathable air are common.
In the neighboring border cities of Mexicali, Baja California, and Calexico,
Calif., PM, CO, and ozone levels make it hard to meet state and federal
ambient air quality standards. These pollutants present health risks,
even in very short periods of exposure, particularly for asthmatics, elderly
people, infants, and other sensitive individuals.
Mexicali residents often express fears over the links between this air
pollution and a high incidence of asthma and leukemia. But neither the
EPA nor Mexico’s Environment and Natural Resources Secretariat has regulations
for short-term exposure to these contaminants.
Another new power plant site, located near Agua Prieta, Sonora and its
sister-city of Douglas, Ariz., has less severe but still serious pollution
levels. Both HAPs and PM are problems. Residents suffer from respiratory
problems and perceived high lupus rates. Concerns over limited availability
of reclaimed and fresh water abound in the arid region.
The residents of Mexicali and Calexico have reacted strongly to the new
power plants proposed for the area, enlisting technical support from San
Diego-based Powers Engineering to analyze the impacts.
Studies show that SEMPRA Energy is building a 600-megawatt plant with
catalytic control to generate north of the border, which will be evaporating
about 2,400 gallons per minute of potentially usable wastewater that currently
flows to the New River.
Meanwhile, Bechtel-Intergen’s 1,000-megawatt facility will sell a minimum
of 35% of its electricity to the Mexican government with the balance presumably
going to U.S. purchasers. The turbines that will generate power for the
United States will emit 1/10 the levels of NOx that Intergen is saying
turbines for Mexican generation will produce. They will pump about 4,000
gallons per minute of wastewater.
Together, the two plants will utilize about 35% of Mexicali’s wastewater
and approximately 10% of the flow of the New River.
American Electric Power is planning a third combined-cycle plant for
the area and a second for Rosarito, with little known of their specifications;
in the past months, promoters of a coal-fired plant have pricked up the
ears of local residents concerned with their environment.
The rationality of siting the new plants in the border region is questionable.
Natural gas is not a renewable resource. Power plants generally offer
25 jobs max. Some of the border plants will offer little or no electricity
to local residents, and it would be hard to demonstrate the need for all
the electricity that would be generated by the southwestern United States
and the border region by 2008 under current proposals.
These realities aside, the movement to require strict environmental controls
on the projected energy expansion here is a healthy one: Do no damage
when building power plants and cause almost no direct environmental impact.
The movement is also saying: If the regulations don’t provide a basis
for solving the problem, set new political ground rules that benefit populations
that already suffer from a damaged environment.
This may be a new perspective growing out of free trade: If power generating
proponents want access to the market, then they should improve the lives
of the local residents whose health and environment is impacted; if government
bureaucracies won’t regulate adequately to protect the environment, then
new political routes should be sought to change the rules.
Today’s power plants do not have to inflict on-site environmental damages.
The strong environmental stands of Baja California and California communities
are an encouraging sign.
Dick Kamp is the director of the Border Ecology Project, based in
This commentary is a product of the Interhemispheric
Resource Center’s A mericas
Program . All rights reserved.
Recommended citation: “Powering
up the Border: What’s the Rush?,” Americas Program Commentary, (Silver
City, NM: Interhemispheric Resource Center, September 5, 2001).
Web location: http://www.americaspolicy.org/commentary/up010905.html