Air Quality — 31 July 2014

El Mercurio and Economía y Negocio report that the Chilean National Petroleum company (La Empresa Nacional de Petróleo, ENAP) is taking steps to move forward with plans to complete the 1,083 megawatt (MW) Energía Minera coal-burning thermoelectric plant project that belongs to CODELCO (Chilean National Copper Company).  The coal-fired CODELCO thermoelectric project received environmental approval in 2008 but never moved forward to the construction phase in part because of heavy opposition from people who live in that the Quintero Bay region, an area that is heavily polluted already. ENAP will change the plant to use natural gas, which is a much cleaner-burning fuel.  ENAP is a natural gas and oil importer.  ENAP wants to eventually acquire the CODELCO facility.

ENAP says it is doing this as part of the government´s plan to increase natural gas usage in the country.  Recently ENAP signed an agreement with British Gas in Louisiana to receive liquid natural gas from the brand-new liquid natural gas export facility at Sabina Pass in Louisiana.  Chile will be among the very first customers for this project.  It was only 5 years ago that the USA was looking to import natural gas.  But because of the discovery of hydraulic fracking (called Shale gas), that country is now overflowing with natural gas and looking to sell some of it abroad.  The USA has the 5th largest reserves of natural gas in the world says Business Insider.

As part of the plan to convert the plant to natural gas, the company will reduce the energy output from 1,050 megawatt to 760 megawatts.  To give an idea of that size, the canceled Hydro Aysen hydroelectric power plant that had been in Patagonia would have generated 2,500 MW. The AES-Gener coal-fired electric plant in Quintero is 338 MW.

ENAP’s general manager Marcelo Tokman told El Mercurio that some thermoelectric plants in the country are currently burning diesel fuel, which is very costly.  Burning coal is the least expensive way to produce electricity, but the dirtiest. Marcelo told the newspaper, “The existing natural gas plants that are now using diesel and the increased availability of natural gas because of the shale gas revolution demonstrate the need to make maximum use of this fuel in the short term.”

The company will have to write a new environmental impact study, a process that in Chile can take a few years because of the need for community input and then a revision to the plan based on community input, as the plan moves to eventual approach by the government.

CODELCO has another project underway, the 780 MW natural gas Luz Minera thermoelectric plant, much further north of Quintero in the II region of Chile in Mejillones. CODELCO is in the copper business and not the electric business, but copper plants in Chile are seeking to drive down the high price of electricity in Chile by building their own power plants. Because Chile has no fuel of its own, except a tiny bit of coal in the Magallanes region, it is totally dependent on imports and has the highest cost of electricity in South American. Mejillones and Quintero are the two locations in Chile where there is a facility where liquid natural gas ships can unload their cargo, although a third is under construction. Here is an article that explains the natural gas market in Chile.

Carbon Tax

ENAP and CODELCO could save some taxes under this new plan.  Ricardo Katz of the Center for Public Studies wrote an analysis of the green taxes in the government’s proposed tax reform package that has been agreed in principal by the congress and awaits final approval. The analysis says that carbon emission taxes could range from $10 mil to $20 mil for a 700 megawatt facility. Burning coal emits much carbon dioxide, which is blamed for global warming. Other countries are taxing carbon emissions to reduce the use of coal.

 Cleaner Burning Fuel

This Quintero region where the CODELCO-ENAP project is located is heavily contaminated with particulate matter and sulfur dioxide pollution due to coal burning and copper extraction in the area. (The companies say other industrial activity in the area is also to blame.) Copper extraction plants separate copper from sulfur to create pure copper thus releasing much sulfur dioxide pollution into the air when those plants do not have adequate filtering systems.

WikiLeaks, using diplomatic cables downloaded by the American solder Private Bradley Manning, said that the US Ambassador intervened with then-president Bachelet to overturn a 2009 judicial ruling that said that the government had illegally approved the construction of the 338 MW coal-burning AES-Gener thermoelectric power plant in Quintero (Las Ventanas).   Construction went ahead anyway despite another order to tear down the plant.  AES-Gener is controlled by US power company AES Corp.

The EPA says that when coal is burned it releases carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and mercury. Natural gas releases carbon dioxide, but in lower quantities than burning coal or oil and the sulfur dioxide and mercury compounds are “negligible.”

The EPA says:

Compared to the average air emissions from coal-fired generation, natural gas produces half as much carbon dioxide, less than a third as much nitrogen oxides, and one percent as much sulfur oxides at the power plant.

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