Reeling in the last of last year's news
Dying coal; parking vs. people; housing silliness; snow, snow, snow
Happy New Year and welcome back to the Land Desk. We have some catching up to do on hibernation season news, so we’ll jump right in ...
Big Breakdown Ticker
San Juan Generating Station, one of the biggest coal power plants on the Colorado Plateau, is dead, along with efforts to revive the polluting behemoth and retrofit it with carbon capture equipment. After a series of legal defeats, the city of Farmington — which owns a 5% share of the plant — announced in December it was dropping its bid to take full ownership of the plant and turn it over to Enchant Energy.
Public Service Company of New Mexico shut down the last unit of the plant in September and was moving forward with decommissioning, a decision the utility made back in 2017 for economic reasons, and reclamation and sealing of the San Juan Mine commenced. But Farmington continued its legal fight to take over the plant, even though Enchant’s $1.6-billion plan was deemed infeasible by multiple energy analysts and the company had repeatedly failed to meet critical benchmarks.
Now Farmington is out at least $2 million in legal costs and it must play catchup on economic development efforts and to replace the power lost when the plant shut down. True to its fossil fuel favoritism, it looks like Farmington will build a new natural gas plant to fill some of the energy gap rather than more cost-effective solar. And instead of truly diversifying its economy, the city and region are hoping to continue relying on fossil fuels in the form of hydrogen production using the vast stores of methane as feedstock.
Unfortunately, planned solar installations that would replace lost property tax revenues crucial for local schools have been delayed by supply chain constraints and inflation. And funds from the Energy Transition Act have also not yet been disbursed.
Enchant Energy, which sprouted from an obscure New York hedge fund in 2019 for no other reason than to keep the plant running (and polluting) while collecting hefty federal subsidies, says it is looking into taking its carbon capture projects elsewhere. In November, the Intermountain Power Association soundly rejected Enchant’s unsolicited bid to purchase retiring Utah power plants and keep them running, apparently to power data centers and/or cryptocurrency mining operations.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Enchant tried to shift its pipe dream … er, carbon capture plans … across the San Juan River to the Four Corners Power Plant, another major polluter that is headed toward retirement by the end of this decade. The Navajo Transitional Energy Company, or NTEC, which is owned by the tribe but acts independently, owns a small share of the plant and the Navajo Mine that feeds it, and so has an interest in keeping it running. NTEC also invested an undisclosed amount into Enchant last year.
NTEC has been making the news elsewhere. The company is suing BNSF railway for allegedly breaching its contract to deliver coal from NTEC’s huge mines in the Powder River Basin to export terminals on the West Coast. Yes, despite the “transitional” in its name, NTEC is one of the nation’s largest coal producers. (Jump down to the Mining Monitor for more NTEC news).
And in more Big Breakdown of coal news: An underground blaze continues to burn in what was Utah’s most productive coal mine (until it caught fire this past summer, that is). All efforts to extinguish the fire have failed, raising chances that the mine will close for good, putting more than 200 miners out of work and devastating the local economy.
NTEC (see above) is partnering with Arizona Lithium Limited to develop the latter’s Big Sandy mining project on 331 Bureau of Land Management claims near Wikieup, Arizona. NTEC CEO Vern Lund sees the project as an opportunity for the company to delve into clean energy, which he says will “benefit native tribes.” But the Hualapai people may disagree: The tribe has been fighting the proposed mine since its inception because it would destroy hot springs and land the tribe holds sacred.
The Department of Energy has awarded contracts to four companies to supply product to the Federal Strategic Uranium Reserve. That includes $18.5 million to Energy Fuels — which Land Desk readers will recognize as the owner of the White Mesa Mill near Blanding, Utah — and to Uranium Energy Corp. The companies both say they will use the proceeds to ramp up or reopen mines in Utah and Wyoming.
For more mining news check out our Mining Monitor Map, which is constantly being updated.
Parking vs. People
I can’t help it. I have to do an I told you so about one of my pet peeves: the parking space separation anxiety that plagues much of America, including my hometown of Durango. Just to recap: A lot of Durangatans are freaking out about a proposed main drag makeover to make it more people-friendly because it might take away some precious parking, which they allege is in short-supply. Well, it’s not — in short supply, that is. The Durango Herald reports that a comprehensive study found that on average only 74% of downtown on-street public parking spaces are occupied during peak hours, meaning even during the busiest times more than 100 parking spaces are available within easy walking distance of downtown businesses, meaning the town can afford to lose some Main Avenue parking to make it a more amenable place for people.
The stat inspired me to go looking for some other parking lot data. It’s alarming.
2,720 acres: Area dedicated to parking in La Plata County, Colorado, in 2012. (USGS)
121,500: Number of households that could be powered by solar canopies covering all of La Plata County’s parking spaces. (Berkeley Lab)
The Durango parking study is worth reading and continues some alarming figures of its own regarding projected growth in population and number of cars for the town.
Housing Crisis Chronicles
I was delighted to read last month that a developer is converting an old Durango motel into long-term rental housing. I wasn’t so delighted to learn the 267-square-foot studio apartments would be renting for $1,500 (and $1,550 to $1,575 for the 314-square-footers). Ummm… what!? Yeah, the River Roost apartments are fetching Paris prices and then some. I get that Durango’s expensive (Durango’s median home sale price is about $700,000), but this seems extreme, even to “surround yourself in cool vibes,” as the website promises, and to live in Durango’s “effortlessly chic, laid-back lifestyle–Cotopaxi-meets-art-gallery-meets-award-winning-craft-brewery.” Whatever the hell that means.
I am curious as to who will rent these places. It seems like it’s a little too refined and mainstream for the typical Durango dirtbag (a term of endearment, I ensure you), and out of their price range: I’ve noticed some upper-end restaurants paying $18 per hour, or about $3,000 per month, which won’t cut it after deducting a chunk for gear and beer. I suspect the Roost might attract young, remote workers who otherwise might have ended up in Denver.
Maybe it will bring in the same folks who pay $599 per night to sleep in a tent. That’s the going rate to “glamp” for a night at the ULUM tent-resort, located near Looking Glass Rock in San Juan County, Utah, north of Monticello. Or perhaps it will draw long-term versions of the affluent clientele drawn to a 306-unit luxury RV park proposed for alongside the Animas River north of Durango, which would include 49 adventure cabins and an “avant-garde” experience, according to a Durango Herald report.
Hey, different strokes, right? But still, something about it all kinda gets at me, something about the sense that this is yet a new level of commodification of Place — or perhaps someone’s stilted idea of what these Places are.
Okay, “aridification” may be the wrong header this time, since the West is getting battered by atmospheric rivers and bomb cyclones and power grid-wrecking snows and winds and rains. It’s record-breaking craziness — at least it seems that way, since we haven’t had much like it in a bit. But is it really all that unusual? Here’s a mini-Data Dump on early winter snowpack levels to help us figure it out:
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