This commentary originally appeared in The Morning Consult on March 24, 2016.
The Navajo Nation is larger than 10 states at 27,000 square miles, and sprawls across tbree states: Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. With a population over 250,000, the Navajo people depend on local jobs to keep their families intact and the Nation’s economy strong.
Arizona and the Navajo Nation rely on two local coal-fired power plants as well as two major coal mines situated in New Mexico and in an area around Black Mesa – so named for the life-sustaining coal beneath it. Environmental regulations like the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan threaten the heart of the land, and the heart of the Navajo community.
The effect of EPA’s war on coal will remove the only stable sources of energy and jobs for the Navajo, leaving many without work.
These threats to the economic stability are not hypothetical. As a result of EPA’s Regional Haze rules several years ago, the Four Corners Generating station shut down 3 of its 5 boilers, reducing demand from the Navajo Mine by nearly 25 percent. The shift in demand for coal meant the leaseholder on the mine could no longer produce coal at a cost effective rate. With further financial pressure looming over the leaseholder the decision was made to shut down the mine altogether.
But this threatened closure meant the loss of hundreds of jobs; not only in the mine, but to the Four Corners Plant as well, which would not be able to run cost effectively without a steady supply of coal from the Navajo Mine. The Nation stepped in using their trust funds, and purchased the mine at a price which allowed it and the power plant to remain viable – even though many still lost jobs.
What the Navajo Nation didn’t anticipate was the EPA’s insistence on shutting down coal-fired generation regardless the cost to the country and their community.
The Kayenta Mine and Navajo Generating Station directly employ at least 800 Navajo alone. Strains from the Clean Power Plan threaten to shut down the Kayenta Mine, which in turn threatens the stability of the Navajo Generating Station. Since the 1990s, the two power plants have invested $700 million in scrubber technologies to comply with various EPA rules, $400 million alone on Regional Haze compliance.
If the power plants cannot continue to operate, stranded assets costs of this magnitude will cause harsh economic consequences to the families in the Navajo Nation as well as families across Arizona.
EPA and ivory tower environmentalists assume it will be easy to replace the coal-fired generation with wind (which would inevitably have to be installed in the middle of an eagle migratory path) and further, that the Navajo will simply find new jobs.
But being Navajo and living on the reservation is deeply meaningful to the thousands who reside on their ancestral lands. Forcing them from their homes and communities to achieve a predicted reduction in temperature by 0.018 degrees Celsius by 2100, is no reason to cripple their economy and destroy their way of life.