Sempra: Exporting Pollution

U.S.-Mexico Border Region to Pay the Price for California's Power

Rosarito Power plant in Rosarito Beach, Mexico. Photo: Tomas Bravo Garcia/Greenpeace.

Rosarito Power plant in Rosarito Beach, Mexico. Photo: Tomas Bravo Garcia/Greenpeace.

If San Diego-based Sempra Energy had decided to build its new natural gas-fired power plant in southern California, state and local authorities would have required the company to comply with stringent air quality regulations. Company officials would also have had to complete detailed environmental impact statements. So Sempra decided to build the plant just over the border in Mexico instead.

The plant, currently under construction in Mexicali, Mexico, will serve consumers in San Diego and Los Angeles. Critics say Sempra, the parent company of San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) is locating its plant three miles inside of Mexico to avoid US environmental laws. In March, environmental groups filed a lawsuit challenging US government permits for transmission lines from the Sempra plant into California.

"Approving transmission lines for power plants under construction in Mexicali, without ensuring that these plants are built to minimize air and water quality impacts, will cause unnecessary harm to local US and Mexican communities," said Bill Powers of Border Power Plant Working Group, a coalition of environmental and community groups on both sides of the border and a plaintiff in the suit.

Sempra's new plant, Termoeléctrica de Mexicali, is but a small part of the company's plan to dominate natural gas distribution and electricity generation throughout Southern California and Northern Mexico. Sempra is also building an extensive gas distribution system capable of fueling as many as twenty-two 500-megawatt power plants along the border.

The environmental impacts of Sempra's natural gas projects would be felt far beyond the border. From a global warming perspective, the Mexican plants would be a disaster. The power plants and natural gas infrastructure that Sempra is planning would add 35 percent more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than is already produced by California's natural gas consumption.

Imperial Impacts

Sempra maintains that the 600-megawatt Mexicali plant will feature the latest pollution control technologies and will be built to California air emissions standards. But that is little consolation to a region plagued with air quality problems. Imperial County, just north of the border with Mexicali, already has the highest incidence of childhood asthma in California. Sempra's plant would emit approximately 378 tons per year of nitrogen oxides, 376 tons of carbon monoxide, and almost 4 megatons of carbon dioxide. Nitrogen oxide causes the formation of pollutants like ozone and particulate matter.

The health effects of these pollutants are significant. Particulate matter causes asthma attacks, respiratory infections, and premature death. Long term exposure to ozone has been linked with lung damage. Exposure to high levels of carbon monoxide can impair mental function, visual perception, and can be life threatening, while oxides of nitrogen can harm the lungs and cause asthma attacks.

The siting of power plants in the Imperial County/Mexicali area to serve electricity needs in San Diego and Los Angeles will disproportionately impact poor people and communities of color. Imperial County is the poorest county in California, with a 72 percent Latino population.

The Imperial County Board of Supervisors contends that the pollutants from the plant "would have significant adverse impacts on the air quality for Imperial County". In an October 8 letter to the California Public Utilities Commission, the board "urged the Department of Energy to delay a decision to grant Presidential Permits for the construction of the proposed power lines." However, the U.S. Department of Energy ignored the county's pleas and granted the permit.

"If these plants should go up, they place my life on the line." local resident Jennifer Lee told the El Centro City Council in January.

The plant will use water from the New River for its cooling system. This water is destined for the Salton Sea National Wildlife refuge in Imperial County, an inland lake that is critical for migratory birds. Instead, approximately 3 million gallons of water per day will be evaporated, and lost to the environment. That amounts to more than 1700 gallons of water per year for each resident of Mexicali. What's more, over 750,000 gallons per day of highly saline wastewater from the cooling system will be dumped, contaminating the New River.

Pipeline Crimes

Sempra's plans also call for a vast T-shaped network of new pipelines stretching from Arizona to Baja California and from San Diego south to a proposed liquefied natural gas station in Ensenada. Together, these pipelines have enough capacity to fuel a total of twenty-two 500-megawatt power plants. Currently, there is only one natural gas power plant in the region.

For the North Baja pipeline, Sempra is teaming up with Pacific Gas and Electric and Proxima Gas of Mexico. The pipeline will take 500 million cubic feet of natural gas from Arizona to Tijuana. It will run 135 miles just south of the California border, allowing Sempra to once again dodge the regulations of its home state.

Sempra has also come under environmental criticism for the proposed $500 million dollar liquified natural gas receiving station 60 miles south of the California-Mexico border. The station would be built on a 300-acre plot of pristine coastline that the company says has been zoned for industrial uses. Yet according to the San Diego Union Tribune, the Mayor of Ensenada has confirmed that this land is zoned 'rustica' -- a protected status in Mexico. Mexican officials stopped the development of an earlier proposed power plant, Rosarito IV, in the same area after local fishing groups and Greenpeace Mexico brought attention to the ecological importance of the area.

The new gas receiving station would ship approximately one billion cubic feet of natural gas each day -- enough for twelve 500-megawatt power plants. This gas burned from this station alone would increase California's global warming emissions from natural gas by seventeen percent.

The magnitude of the project is staggering, and extremely dangerous. The station would require two to four tanks each holding five million cubic feet of liquified natural gas. This liquid would rapidly expand to three billion cubic feet of gas if for any reason the cooling system failed or the tank envelope were punctured. There is no way that this station would be built in the United States after September 11, 2001; it is simply too large a target. An explosion of the storage tanks would equal the detonation of 250 tons of TNT. Such a facility would never be built in California -- yet it's being built for Californians.

The Valley-Rainbow Connection

Sempra also wants to build a new 31-mile transmission line, called the Valley-Rainbow interconnect, that will allow the company to sell its dirty electricity generated in Mexico to Los Angeles and beyond.

The plan calls for condemning or disrupting 351 homes in the Temecula valley, as well as running the line over land, the rights to which have recently been recovered by the Pechanga band of the Luiseno Mission Indians. Sempra has unsuccessfully tried to mislead the people of Temecula, just as it has state regulators. Before a public meeting in Temecula, Sempra ran a full-page ad in the local paper stating that the California Independent System Operator, which controls the flow of power throughout the state, had noted the need for the Valley-Rainbow line. This was inaccurate, and the company was forced to run an apology in the next edition of the paper. Now the community is dead set against letting Sempra build the transmission line.

Sempra has engaged in a misinformation campaign to secure approval for the plan. Initially the company said it needed the line to import power from the north of the state, to keep San Diego from going dark. But recently Sempra changed its tune and revealed the real reason it wants to build the line. A company forecast showed that there will be "many megawatts well into the future in San Diego county" and that the line is really needed for exporting power from Mexico to Los Angeles and Northern California. The California Public Utilities Commission has questioned the need for the transmission line, and has criticized Sempra for being less than forthcoming about its motivations for the project. In a memo regarding Sempra's statement of need for the line, Commissioner Duque stated that the company's "position with respect to need has not been presented in a straightforward fashion."

Sempra has also tried to hide the project's enormous price tag, which will be passed on to ratepayers. In one CPUC filing, Sempra wrote: "releasing cost information to the public ultimately will result in increased costs to SDG&E customers." Nonetheless, public pressure forced Sempra to reveal that the line would cost $350 million dollars, making it one of the most expensive in history -- and proving that the project would not be in the ratepayers' best interest.

The proposed Valley-Rainbow interconnect would run straight through one of southern California's greatest natural treasures -- the Great Oak Ranch. This land, recently regained by the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, is appropriately named for a 2,000 year-old Coast live oak tree. In May 2001, after working for more than a decade, the tribe was able to regain its ancestral lands by purchasing the ranch. The tribe began the process of putting the land into trust to secure it for future generations.

The land is rich in precious tribal cultural resources and boasts the former home of Earle Stanley Gardner, author of the famed Perry Mason novels. But the highlight of the ranch is its namesake -- the largest Coast Live Oak tree in California. With a trunk 26 feet in diameter, its branches create a majestic altar. After more than a century, the Pechanga are once again able to hold ceremonies under the tree.

Sempra has since exerted tremendous pressure to block the Pechangas' application to the Department of the Interior to fully regain control over their land. Sempra has hired former interior secretary Bruce Babbitt to pull weight in Washington D.C., while his former deputy, David Hayes, is the company's legal council. If the tribe receives approval to place these lands into trust, Sempra must then gain permission from the tribe for any transmission line. But, if Sempra is successful with its plans, the Valley-Rainbow line could be towering over the majestic oak itself, which stands a mere 200 feet away from the proposed route.

Elected officials from all over the state support protection of the Great Oak Ranch. State Representative Darrell Issa (R-Temecula), for example, has introduced legislation in California to protect the Pechanga lands until they are safely held in trust. But Sempra continues to lobby against such efforts.

The Renewable Solution

There are alternatives to Sempra's dirty energy plan for the border. The area is rich in renewable resources including wind, solar and geothermal power. In fact, renewable energy companies are ready and willing to build facilities in the San Diego/Imperial County region. These developers have signed letters of intent to deliver electricity to the California Power Authority, the government agency created by Governor Davis to oversee the power market.

Meanwhile, Greenpeace is currently campaigning in San Diego to develop and pass a solar revenue bond similar to the bonds passed in San Francisco in November 2001. By committing to solar photovoltaics, the city will reduce the demand for dirty energy from across the border, while supporting the growth of the renewable energy economy in California.

Renewable energy is also the answer to the looming threat of climate change. The border region should become a model of how a rich northern state can support the sustainable development of a southern neighbor, while greatly reducing its own energy use and committing to renewables.

This article was adapted from Terra Sempra, a report by Greenpeace's Clean Energy Now Campaign. For more information, please visit and join Positive Energy, a weekly newsletter with updates on Greenpeace's efforts to promote renewable energy in California and beyond.

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