Kern County farmers question just how ‘clean’ new coal plant would be

Plans to build a $4-billion experimental “clean coal plant” in the San Joaquin Valley have touched off fears here that as it generates cleaner electricity, it would foul groundwater and air in a region where airborne pollutants are among the nation’s worst.

The Hydrogen Energy California project is touted as a clean alternative to coal-fired power plants, whose emissions are a large contributor to global warming.

The project’s owner, SCS Energy LLC of Concord, Mass., says the plant it plans for a 453-acre site west of Bakersfield would produce 100 times less airborne particulates and greenhouse gases than a conventional coal-fired plant.


“We need this technology,” said Daniel Schrag, a Harvard geochemist and consultant to SCS Energy. “It can show the way for the United States to de-carbonize its industrial sector.”

The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded SCS a grant of $408 million to develop the technology, which would be a boon to coal producing states whose mining-dependent economies are jeopardized by efforts to phase out coal as a source for electrical generation.

Politically, the Obama administration and many Democrats see the technology as a way to counter Republican charges in an election year that they are willing to sacrifice the economies of coal producing states to curtail greenhouse gases.

At the moment, many aspects of the Buttonwillow project remain unresolved, including disposal of byproducts generated by the plant. The unanswered questions are fueling worries about the ability of farms to coexist with a huge industrial operation that uses and produces dangerous chemicals and emits an estimated 500 tons of air pollutants a year — for which SCS has purchased emission-reductions credits.

“Imagine 300 project trucks per day on our two-lane roads, kicking up dust as they haul coal to the plant, waste to landfills and fertilizer to market,” said pistachio farmer John Romanini. “Imagine trying to get the word out to field workers if something goes horribly wrong over there.”

Many elected officials, normally welcoming to new industry, are waiting for more information.

“Ours is a balancing act,” said Kern County Supervisor David Couch, whose district includes the project. “It’s difficult to be supportive of something that still has so many unanswered questions.”

The plant would create electricity without burning fossil fuels. Instead, it would convert a blend of petroleum coke and coal, shipped by rail from New Mexico, into hydrogen and carbon dioxide using a process known as gasification: heat under pressure in the presence of steam.

The hydrogen would be burned to generate 300 megawatts of electricity, of which some will go to the grid and some will be used by SCS to produce $1-billion worth of fertilizer per year.

Ninety percent of the carbon dioxide would be routed through a pipeline running beneath the California Aqueduct to a nearby oil field for injection in deep underground rock formations. The carbon dioxide would coax petroleum out of tiny pore spaces in the rock and toward production wells, then safely mineralize beneath the surface.

SCS Energy says its low-carbon fertilizer would provide indirect economic benefits to the region because it would be cheaper for farmers who now pay ever-increasing costs to import fertilizer. The company also promises to buy the Kern County Fire Department an industrial foam tender, a rescue truck with a 50-ton rotator crane and a five-acre plot of land on which to relocate a fire station closer to the site.

The project would create more than 2,000 construction jobs, more than 200 permanent jobs and “new tax revenues,” the company says. It also would contribute about $9 million to the regional air quality control district for investment in projects to reduce emissions from sources including tractors and trucks.

But many aspects of the project remain unknown.

SCS’s plant, scheduled to open in 2018, has yet to find a market for its main byproduct, a non-toxic slag that could have other industrial applications. The slag can’t simply be dumped in local landfill because it would put Kern County out of compliance with state law requiring it to recycle 50% of its waste.

Separately, the California Energy Commission says the project’s plan to siphon off 7,500 acre feet per year of brackish water from a local aquifer may eventually deplete groundwater supplies that farmers argue should instead be used to irrigate pistachio crops.

Also, SCS hasn’t found a customer for the 2 million tons of carbon dioxide it will produce every year. The company intended to send the carbon dioxide to Occidental Petroleum Corp.'s nearby Elk Hills oil field. However, Oxy recently announced plans to spin off its California assets into a separately traded company. It is not clear whether the new entity will want to partner with the project, state officials said.

The company is assuring farmers, county officials and regulators they have nothing to fear. The company would monitor aquifer and air quality. Hazardous substances would be stored in double-hulled silos. An “early warning system” would sound an alarm in the event of an accident. A hazardous materials team would be on-site to assist project workers.

But farmers in particular remain skeptical.

“They couldn’t have picked a more fragile community in the United States to test this technology,” said Chris Romanini, who with her husband, John, recently planted 21,000 baby pistachio trees a half-mile from the project site. “If something goes wrong, we’re stuck with the consequences.”

In the community of Tupman, about 21/2 miles southeast of the plant, Don VanLue suggested a worst case scenario: A stray electric charge explodes a leaky ammonia storage tank, creating a toxic cloud carried by prevailing winds.

“People in town, or visiting the nearby Tule Elk Preserve, won’t be able to get out in time,” he said.

The promise of tax revenue is also a point of contention. Fertilizer is among the few products exempt from sales tax in California. As a result, Kern County would not receive sales tax revenue from the anticipated production of 2 million tons of urea and ammonium nitrate per year.

Before the project can begin, it requires approval of the state Energy Commission.

If built, the plant will be the second in the U.S. to incorporate carbon storage or “sequestration” technology. The other is the Mississippi Power Company’s Kemper County coal plant, a $5.5-billion facility expected to open next year in the face of cost overruns and intense environmental opposition.