Months after picketers targeted Kennecott Copper's on-site coal power plant the company has made a proposal to convert partially to much-cleaner burning natural gas, a specific request of protesters. The transition could come as soon as 2014.
Kennecott has submitted a plan to the Utah Division of Air Quality to make the switch, but permitting, funding approval from Kennecott's corporate owner, Rio Tinto, and then actual construction will all take considerable time. Read more from their press release here.
A coalition of Utah groups concerned about air quality said in a press release "we are pleased that Kennecott Copper has committed to reducing its use of coal in its smelter operations. This is most certainly a step in the right direction for the largest stationary, industrial source of air pollution in the valley."
We are particularly disappointed, however, that Kennecott is choosing to continue to burn coal for decades in the future when there are cleaner, viable options that should be equally considered. We are disappointed that Kennecott will not commit to a schedule in which their entire use of coal can be completely phased out. In the larger scope of their proposed mine expansion that will most likely add additional amounts of pollutants into our airshed, and in light of the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible, we believe it is imperative that Kennecott Copper makes a commitment to eliminate all uses of coal. We will continue to request this of Kennecott officials and work with them directly to make this complete transition to cleaner energy a reality.
That statement is singed by Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, Peaceful Uprising, Utah Moms for Clean Air, Post Carbon Salt Lake, Utah Chapter Sierra Club, Breathe Utah and Renewable Energy Resources.
From April 6, 2010:
Local activists are planning an ongoing campaign against Kennecott Utah Copper for their use of Salt Lake Valley's only coal-fired power plant. Activists complain the company burns coal, which some consider “the most terrifying and immediate threat” to the environment, only because it's cheaper than using cleaner fuels like natural gas.
Parent-company Rio Tinto (NYSE: RTP) produced profit margins of almost 14 percent in 2009—a very healthy margin, especially during a global recession—has a market capitalization of $121 billion, and about $19 billion in debt. They'll soon pay $883 million in dividends to investors. The company has set a goal of 6 percent decrease in “total greenhouse gas emissions per unit of commodity production by 2013.”
But that greenhouse-gas goal is no guarantee that Kennecott's coal power plant in Salt Lake will be shut down, and besides, 2013 wouldn't be soon enough for the activists anyway. Lead by Peaceful Uprising, but also including Utah Moms for Clean Air, and others, the activists want Kennecott to stop burning coal right now.
Proof that the company can exist on clean fuel alone, activists say, is demonstrated during four winter months out of the year during which Kennecott purchases electricity off the grid operated by Rocky Mountain Power before switching back to their on-site coal power plant on March 1.(see updates below)
The company is more outspoken than others regarding its environmental goals. Rio Tinto's home Website, for example, displays prominently the company's “Sustainable Development Report 2009.” Kennecott's own 2008 Sustainable Development Reportcontrary to business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. brags that the company installed new windows at the coal power plant, which “helped reduce heat loss from the decades-old, single-pane installations." The company even says they support a cap-and-trade program to reduce carbon emissions, a stance that's
Kennecott spokesperson Jana Kettering said the protesters aren't seeing Kennecott's efforts.
"Kennecott is doing a lot of good things that don't seem to carry any weight. We're using solar, we use steam, we build energy efficient buildings. We have the first Platinum LEED[-certified] building in the state. In fact, we have five LEED certified buildings, more than any other company that we're aware of in the nation."
But energy efficient buildings are not just better for the environment: in the long-term, they save money, and Kettering admits the primary reason for using coal is "mostly economics." So, how much money does Kennecott save burning coal instead of purchasing energy produced outside Salt Lake Valley or producing natural gas energy themselves?
"We're in the process of studying that right now," she said.
It's possible, however, that despite economics Kennecott will be forced to meet their environmental goals—and perhaps go a lot further. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for example, is expected to release plans to regulate carbon dioxide from stationary pollution sources like Kennecott any day now.
If Kennecott is forced by new environmental regulations to change its operations in Utah, it wouldn't be the first time.
Kennecott began using natural gas energy during winter months in reaction to new federal regulations from the 1980s regarding particulate matter, or PM10, said Utah Air Quality Division director Cheryl Heying. In the late 80s and early 90s as Utah sought to comply with new federal regulations on PM10, state regulators began working with local, major sources of pollution like Kennecott. No longer would Kennecott's coal emissions contribute to smoggy winter inversions.
“We put restrictions on them that they couldn't burn coal during winter,” Heying said. “That is still in place.”
But Kennecott's coal-fire emissions still may join the summer air, Heying said, in part because Salt Lake's unique geography captures pollution near the surface particularly well during winter inversions, but less so during the summer.
Utah has different air quality problems in the summer, however. Ozone is Utah's trickiest summer air pollutant and any new regulations expected this year will probably lead to new efforts in Utah—a “state implementation plan”—to reduce ozone, Heying said. Burning coal contributes both PM10 and ozone to the valley's air.
One polluting substance that neither the state nor the federal governments currently regulate, however, is carbon dioxide, a natural substance that can change the planet's climate if it is too concentrated in the atmosphere. The Obama administration will be the first in U.S. history to try to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act.
Burning coal creates a lot of carbon dioxide. Kennecott's operations contributed 1.78 tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2008—a figure the company voluntarily releases as a part of their environmental goals—59 percent of which came from their coal power plant.
Heying says its important to note that about one-third of Utah's air pollution comes from major, stationary sources of pollution like Kennecott. Another third comes from motor-vehicles and transportation generally, while another third comes from disparate and small sources including dry cleaners, restaurants and homes. Any new EPA regulations will impact everyone, she said.
Peaceful Uprising steering committee member Flora Bernard says focusing on Kennecott is more than symbolism.
“Coal-fired power and coal pollution is the most terrifying and immediate threat in terms of contributions to climate change in the world,” she said. “Kennecott is the only power plant burning coal in our valley right now. So even if you want to view it—and I don't—as a largely symbolic gesture, there's no way we can morally allow that to keep going on.”
For more information on Kennecott's environmental efforts, go to http://www.kennecott.com/environmental-stewardship/
Update: 4-7-10 9:40 a.m.: Below is the video of the campaign kickoff, a protest demonstration at Kennecott which happened Saturday, courtesy of Peaceful Uprising.
Update 4-7-10 2:18 p.m.: The fourth paragraph of this story has been corrected. The original wording may have been misleading as to the source of Kennecott's power during the winter. This paragraph also initially misidentified the date when Kennecott makes the switch over from grid to onsite electricity.