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Before regulation hits, a battle over how to build new US coal plants

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A half-hour car ride south of Farmington, N.M., a modest trailer sits atop a small rise in the spectacular landscape of mesas and upward-jutting rock formations. Known as Ram Springs to the locals, the hill is on the eastern edge of the Navajo Nation, a West Virginia-size tract of land spread across New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. A stenciled cloth hanging out front reads "Doodá Desert Rock." Desert Rock is a proposed 1,500-megawatt coal-fired power plant being sited nearby. "Doodá" (pronounced "DO-da") means "no" in Navajo – emphatically no.

Worried about pollution and the prospect of getting pushed off their land if the power plant is allowed to be built, a group of Navajo, or Diné – "the people" in their native language – "sit vigil" on this windblown hilltop day after day. The protest group, now joined by a coalition of religious and environmental organizations, spotlights the growing national debate over the direction of US energy production. It's a pivotal moment; the human hand in global warming has gained increased recognition, but carbon regulations have yet to be put in place.

As America's appetite for energy grows, environmentalists and some lawmakers argue that new coal-fired plants should use the newest – albeit more expensive – technology available to keep coal-produced pollutants in check. But some in the power industry counter that guessing about future regulations and investing in new, largely untested technology is no way to run a business.

The fact is, demand for energy in the United States is projected to increase 1.1 percent each year through 2030. Economists say cheap and abundant energy is necessary to maintain a vibrant and healthy economy. Faced with ever higher oil prices and possessing ample reserves – more than any other single country – the obvious choice for the US is coal, say experts.

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