Commentary: It’s no secret that the air in El Paso and southern New Mexico is unhealthy to breathe. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”), the Sunland Park, New Mexico area is a “non-attainment” area for ozone pollution—meaning that it experiences levels of this caustic pollutant above those considered safe. In a recent court filing, EPA conceded that it needed to take a closer look at whether El Paso might also be violating the clean air standard. The facts speak for themselves: ozone levels violated the clean air standard seven times last year in the El Paso area, and are trending in the wrong direction. This pollution causes real harm to individuals in our community. According to analysis by researchers at New York University and the American Thoracic Society, elevated ozone levels in El Paso cause, on an annual basis, about 13 premature deaths, 42 emergency room visits, and 46,473 missed work or school days. (Neighboring Doña Ana County sees 5 premature deaths, 11 emergency room visits, and 13,185 missed work or school days).
Although some of this pollution is transported to the area from Mexico and other parts of the United States, human activities in the El Paso area are an important part of the problem. The largest industrial sources of ozone-precursor pollution in the area are El Paso Electric’s power plants—the Newman Generating Station in Northeast El Paso and the Rio Grande Generating Station in Sunland Park. Any plan for cleaning up the air in our community must involve reducing pollution from these two plants.
Fortunately, it is possible to substantially reduce emissions from these facilities at a reasonable cost. As the Sierra Club explained in a recent letter to New Mexico regulators, utilities can improve the efficiency of simple-cycle natural gas generating units, like those used by El Paso Electric, by about 6% using a combination of proven, off-the-shelf technologies and operational changes. These improvements would reduce emissions, because they allow a facility to produce the same amount of power using less fuel.
Improving the efficiency of El Paso Electric’s powerplants by 6% would cut emissions of nitrogen oxide—a key ozone precursor—by about 150 tons. As an added benefit, these steps would reduce carbon pollution, which is driving the climate crisis, by the same amount as taking 27,000 cars off the road.
Ultimately, with the costs of renewable and battery storage plummeting, it will not make environmental or economic sense for El Paso Electric to continue running fossil fuel generators for much longer. Those of us who breathe the air in El Paso should demand that El Paso Electric move swiftly towards phasing out fossil fuels. But in the meantime, the utility should be taking steps to ensure that its existing power plants are as efficient as possible.
David Baake is a local attorney representing Sierra Club on climate and clean air issues. Miguel Escoto is David Baake’s legal assistant and an organizer for Sunrise El Paso environmental group.