Coal country, for now

Advice for reporters covering coal as the story "ripples" West

PROVO, UT — If you’re even somewhat informed about coal, you know that it is a big story in Wyoming and Montana, where close to half of the nation’s coal is produced each year. But it is actually a story—like water—that spans a large swath of western geography, running from the coal- and natural-gas-rich regions of the Cowboy State, to some of the nation’s largest coal-fired power plants in Utah and Arizona, to the power-thirsty Southern California metroplex. It is a story that touches the four states that I cover for the United States Project—Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah—even while none is a top coal-producer.

I recently spent some time exploring coverage of coal in my region and talking to reporters here about the work they have done and advice they have for others on—or coming to—the story.

Judy Fahys, who was an environmental reporter at the Salt Lake Tribune for 21 years until a round of layoffs in September, said one of the best ways to get a jump on coal-fired plant stories—a big part of the story in my region—is to monitor states’ power company regulators, such as a state’s public service commission. Most companies, already prompted by economics and pending plant emission regulations, have plans to modify plants or build new ones. Power companies’ public filings with the state can be treasure troves for reporters, Fahys said. She also tells reporters to mine the US Energy Information Agency for data.

Fahys notes that the movement to clean up emissions from western power plants started years ago as regulators wanted to reduce the haze that settled over the West’s iconic national parks. Perhaps the most egregious example is the Navajo Generating Station (NGS) on a Navajo reservation near Page, AZ, which belches out smoke, sometimes obscuring the vistas of the Grand Canyon. (Arizona produces some 40 percent of its electricity from coal-powered plants like NGS). In March, the Arizona Republic reported on the “delicate dance between the community, the NGS, and the EPA,” which issued a proposal in February to significantly reduce NGS’s emissions.

In September, the EPA announced proposed emissions standards for all new power plants, about which The Hill offered this solid overview. In November, the Paonia, Colorado-based bi-weekly High Country News wrote about one of the EPA’s 11 “listening sessions” around the country—this one in Denver—as the agency prepares to draft emissions rules for existing plants, which, the News wrote, “could have a much more profound effect on the coal industry, and on emissions, given that few new coal plants are being built anymore.” The High Country News has done good work on the coal beat—from the business angles to a recent look at the potential for “carbon capture and sequestration,” which an EPA administrator called “the pathway forward for coal.”

In November, four members of Arizona’s congressional delegation took aim at proposed EPA regulations in an Arizona Republic op-ed, saying the rules would bring “disastrous results” to Arizona’s energy future.

Back in June, Arizona State University professor and scientist Martin J. Pasqualetti offered these thoughts on the future of coal-fired power plants in his own Arizona Republic op-ed:

Recent interest in the future of the Navajo Generating Station near Page is part of a larger dialogue about the future of coal-fired power plants everywhere, and the signs are that we are, after more than a centurylong marriage, falling out of love with coal….

Despite these signals, predicting whether Arizona will continue relying on coal for a third of its electricity is a complicated matter, made more so because thousands of jobs, including many held by Native Americans, are involved.

The potential for lost coal jobs looms large in the West. But Fahys, formerly of the Tribune, cautions reporters to avoid framing the story in terms of environmentalists versus power producers. It is the availability of lower-cost and cleaner-burning natural gas, says Fahys, that is driving many decisions.

Decisions like the one to retire Utah’s oldest coal-burning station in 2015, as the Salt Lake Tribune reported in October. Per the Trib:

The Carbon plant is among the nation’s 150 coal-burning plants whose retirements have been announced since 2010. For years coal has been the cheapest fuel for generating power, but not anymore…

The state’s largest power plant, operated by the Intermountain Power Agency near Delta, still burns coal for now. A power source for Southern California, the plant is slated to be converted to natural gas, but not because of mercury pollution. California is fast losing interest in power from coal because of the fuel’s climate-altering carbon-dioxide emissions, so IPA must switch or risk losing its biggest customers.

As The New York Times put it in a November story on the Carbon Plant, “coal’s downward turn has hit Appalachia hardest, but the effects of the transition toward other energy sources have started to ripple westward.”

There is much work to do here, covering the ripple effects in this region.

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Joel Campbell is CJR's correspondent for Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. An associate journalism professor at Brigham Young University, he is the past Freedom of Information chairman for the Society of Professional Journalists and was awarded the Honorary Publisher Award by the Utah Press Association for his advocacy work on behalf of journalists in the Utah Legislature. Follow him on Twitter @joelcampbell. Tags: , , , , ,