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In Kern County, Plans for Hydrogen Power Plant And Fertilizer Factory Ignite Debate

In the small Kern County community of Tupman, the 2013 pistachio harvest is well underway. 

Chris Romanini's family has been farming this land, just west of Interstate 5, where the valley's fields meet the Elk Hills for decades. 

It's probably not the first place you'd think of when it comes to the effort to reduce CO2 emissions and combat global warming. But just a few hundred yards away from this orchard, plans for a $4 billion power plant and fertilizer factory could soon make the Tupman area known for a lot more than those pistachios. 

It's called Hydrogen Energy California, or HECA. 

"This is a project that has a lot of national and global attention primarily for its goal of generating power with a low carbon footprint," says Tiffany Rau, spokesperson for the project, which is owned by Massachusetts based SCS Energy. 

The 300 megawatt plant would be powered by coal and refinery waste. But instead of burning the fuel, like a traditional coal plant, it would be transformed into something called syngas, and ultimately, "into a clean burning hydrogen fuel in order to make electricity for the power grid in California." 

But it doesn't stop there. In fact, that's just the beginning. 

"And in the process of doing that, rather than venting the CO2, into the atmosphere, which would become a greenhouse gas emission, the technology captures and then stores it into a nearby oil field,” says Rau.

The owner of that field, Occidental Petroleum would then use that pressurized CO2 to get more oil out of its wells. The idea of sealing up our unwanted carbon dioxide deep inside the earth has a lot of people excited, including President Obama, who three years called for 10 commercial plants to be operable by 2016.

"If we can develop the technology to capture the carbon pollution released by coal it can create jobs and provide energy well into the future,” said Obama in 2010 in a speech about energy policy.

That's one reason why this Kern County plant is set to receive $408 million from the U.S. Department of Energy, as part of a cost-sharing agreement. 

But there's another big part of this project. Fertilizer. 

"A lot of people don't know that in California we import about 90 percent or more of our fertilizer into the state and 32 percent of that actually comes from out of the country,” says Rau.

The plant will have the capacity to produce up to 1 million tons of fertilizer per year. It wasn't originally part of the project, but was added by SCS to make the plant financially viable. Project officials say when electricity demand is low, the plant will produce urea, and when its high, electricity.

"It's actually one of the cleanest plants in the world and also one of the first plants to really come forth and address things in a different way." - energy expert Carl Bauer

All of this adds up to one of the most complex industrial facilities that California has ever seen, according to Carl Bauer, former director of the Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory, and now an energy industry consultant. 

"HECA is kind of leading the way with technology that has actually been proven to be viable, but they have not been integrated in the way that HECA's doing it. So that's kind of a first of a kind,” says Bauer.

“It’s actually one of the cleanest plants in the world and also one of the first plants to really come forth and address things in a different way.”

He says it’s an innovative idea in taking so-called "clean coal" and making it a reality in the market.

But the idea of putting a new power plant and chemical factory in the middle of one of the worst air basins in the country, has many people concerned. 

“This project is not right for Kern County, [and] is not right for California.”

Evan Gillespie is a deputy director with the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. 

“The project as proposed would rail coal from New Mexico on diesel trains straight through south Bakersfield, where it would then potentially get on trucks that would deliver the coal to the project, where the project would then gasify the coal pouring obscene amounts of new pollution into the air, into the dirtiest air basin in the country,” says Gillespie.

So how to explain the dramatically differing views on the cleanliness of this plant when it comes to air quality? Well it turns out the truth is somewhere in between. I spoke with Dave Warner, the director of permit services for the Valley Air District.  

Even with the company's efforts to capture 90 percent of the CO2 the plant will produce, Warner admits it will be a major source of just about every sort of pollution. 

“In fact any time you have a combustion process you will produce nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, sulfur oxides, particulate matter, air toxic emissions as well,” says Warner.

But despite that, earlier this year, the air district found that the project is in compliance with all district emission offsetting regulations, and won't cause any violations of federal air quality standards. The key word there is offsetting. The plant proposes to offset those emissions, ultimately claiming to be a net benefit to the region's air quality. 

"This is on prime farmland, and it is surrounded by food crops. Coal has heavy metals in it, mercury and other things that if it gets loose and if it gets into our fields, we don't want to see food crops contaminated." - farmer Chris Romanini

“The mitigation proposal that we made to HECA was for them to contribute a total of almost $9 million into the funds we use to directly achieve emission reductions from those sources like tractors and trucks,” says Warner.

Still, that doesn't satisfy many project opponents, like Chris Romanini, the pistachio farmer we heard from earlier. She's one of the project's most vocal critics. 

“This is on prime farmland, and it is surrounded by food crops. Coal has heavy metals in it, mercury and other things that if it gets loose and if it gets into our fields, we don’t want to see food crops contaminated,” says Romanini.

She also is worried about the project's impact on water supplies in the area. The plant will use up to 7,500 acre feet of water per year. The plant has a deal with a local water district to use what it calls brackish water which would otherwise have to be cleaned up, but Romanini and others say that the water in question is more than good enough to grow crops with. 

“This is usable water and we are in [groundwater] overdraft in Kern County,” says Romanini.

And she says the environmental benefits of the power plant are outweighed by the fertilizer component of the project.

“So when they are making fertilizer, they’re actually sucking 62 megawatts out of the grid. Do you know fertilizer because they say farmers are using too much of it,” says Romanini. 

The plant will also produce other byproducts including 220 tons of sulfur per day and 850 tons a day of gasification solids. Some of that could be used in products from shingles to concrete, but much of it could wind up in a landfill. 

Still, despite the drawbacks, project supporters like Carl Bauer say it's a necessary step for California to meet its clean energy goals, and to make an effort at reducing global warming. 

“I think this project is one of the few projects that are looking at demonstrating this is something we can do, and the more we do it, the more we’ll reduce greenhouse gas, and the more we’ll be able to get the costs to be even less expensive,” says Bauer.

And Tiffany Rau says if the project ultimately receives all of the necessary approvals from the California Energy Commission the boost to the local economy would be huge. 

“We expect 2,400 jobs during peak construction, so it’s a significant employer,” says Rau.

The next step in the lengthy approval process takes place Tuesday evening at the Buttonwillow Recreation and Parks District’s Multipurpose Facility.

Joe Moore is the President and General Manager of KVPR / Valley Public Radio. He has led the station through major programming changes, the launch of KVPR Classical and the COVID-19 pandemic. Under his leadership the station was named California Non-Profit of the Year by Senator Melissa Hurtado (2019), and won a National Edward R. Murrow Award for investigative reporting (2022).
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