Black Mesa coal as a source for transportation fuels

While the Hopi Tribe and Navajo Nation are facing the economic challenges that will follow the shutdown of Mohave Generating Station at the end of this year, our country is facing some very serious energy-related environmental and social/political problems. These problems include our rapidly increasing carbon dioxide emissions, which are contributing to global climate change, and our high level of dependency on expensive foreign oil. The United States is the largest importer and user of foreign oil, purchased mostly from the volatile Middle East. However, the U.S. is now competing for the remaining oil supplies with the rapidly expanding economy of China. There is a developing consensus that we are nearing the end of cheap oil, if not the end of oil entirely. This situation threatens the stability of not just the U.S. economy but the world economy as well.

By taking into account the country’s need for better and more fuels, the tribes have the opportunity to build a solid economic foundation for our peoples. The future economic situation on the reservations is challenging, as our leaders have repeatedly pointed out, but the challenge is far from insurmountable, and in meeting it responsibly—in accordance with our teachings and values—we will be all the stronger and set an example for economic development around the world. Here is one approach we might take:

It is critical that new energy supplies be utilized to offset the loss of affordable oil-based resources. Huge coal resources underlie Hopi and Navajo lands. However, combustion of this coal in a power plant results in the release of large amounts of greenhouse gases and a multitude of toxic chemicals. Scientific studies have also shown that industrial air pollutants from sources such as coal-fired power plants can reduce rainfall in the surrounding region. Further, the Hopi are committed to preserving the health and well being of all living things; selling coal to a power plant that emits harmful particulates and other pollutants is not in keeping with that commitment.

Fortunately, by employing a unique process of steam-reforming gasification, it is now possible to use coal as a feedstock to produce clean synthetic gas (syngas) and transportation fuels such as ethanol and diesel. The syngas could be shipped by truck or pipeline to markets, and the ethanol or synthetic diesel fuel would be transported by truck and rail. The product would likely be shipped to California, which currently purchases one billion gallons per year of ethanol from the Midwest.

A $65 million project has been proposed that would process approximately 400,000 tons of Black Mesa coal per year into 43 million gallons of fuel-grade ethanol. Or the facility could provide syngas, which could be made into a natural gas substitute. The proposed process is anaerobic (without oxygen or air), thus it produces minimal air emissions. The coal would be gasified at the mine site, using water contained in the coal or water from a recycled or reclaimed source. It would use less than 200 acre-feet per year of water. The facility would eliminate the need for the slurry pipeline that now transports coal from Black Mesa to the coal-fired Mohave Generating Station in Nevada. Closing down the slurry operation would allow N-aquifer water to be used for other purposes. Operations would provide an annual payroll to tribal workers of $5 million. Such a facility would serve as a global showcase for clean coal energy generation. It would also demonstrate how Arizona Native Americans could help the U.S. to reduce its dependency on foreign oil.

Because the proposed facility would use 80 percent less coal and 95 percent less water than the current coal and water mining operations, the life expectancy of the coal and water resources in the region would become greatly extended. By producing fuels rather than electrical power, the issue of the availability of transmission lines is avoided. The market for transportation fuels is much broader and more open than the market for electricity. Moreover, the economic value of fuel is much greater than the economic value of electricity.

A shutdown of the Mohave Generation Station will likely have a devastating financial impact on both tribes. However, the proposed coal-to-syngas or fuels facility, when fully operational, would provide approximately $25 million annually to the plant’s owners. If the owners were the tribes, then they would see no loss to their annual income stream. Such a facility could be operational in 2006 or 2007 if construction commenced this year.

Several states have implemented or are considering strong alternative fuels mandate programs to help bolster in-state alternative fuels production facilities. Arizona air quality and public health would benefit from the increased use of cleaner alternative fuels like ethanol and biodiesel.

What’s needed next is funding to conduct a pre-feasibility study of the proposed project or other means to process and utilize Arizona coal reserves in a more environmentally sound fashion. Given the impending shutdown of the Mohave Generating Station, it is all the more urgent to seriously explore economically practical alternative uses of tribal coal reserves.

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