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Hopi and Diné Meet to Discuss Future of Navajo Generating Station

Long the cause of conflict and distrust, Black Mesa coal is becoming the key to a new approach to building a sustainable future for the Native peoples of the region and the many non-Native peoples who have lights and water because of that coal.

In early December, three generations of Navajos and Hopis met with representatives of grassroots and national human rights and environmental groups to discuss the future of Navajo Generating Station (NGS) on Navajo land near Page, Arizona. Former Navajo Nation president Milton Bluehouse says, “This was a strategy meeting about how to phase out coal for energy over a period of time and find a way to use other resources such as solar, wind or biomass to produce electricity.”

The 2,250-megawatt coal-fueled power plant was built in the early 1970s to provide power for the Central Arizona Project (CAP) and electricity for the growing cities of the Southwest. Marshall Johnson, Navajo, who describes himself as a watchman for his people, explains that most of the power generated at NGS and owned by the federal government “is used to push water uphill from Lake Havasu to Phoenix and Tucson. Eighty percent of the people in Arizona depend on CAP for their water.”

The fuel for the power plant comes from Kayenta Mine on Black Mesa. That coal is owned by the Navajo and Hopi; the strip mine is owned and operated by Peabody Energy, which pays royalties to the tribes. According to a report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the power plant and the mine together provide $150 million to the tribes, including coal royalties, bonuses, groundwater, leases and air permits. NGS employs 450 American Indians and the mine 400.

The future of NGS is up for grabs for several reasons, says Johnson: “Coal is too expensive and water is too expensive to use for generating power.” First, plant owners will in the next few years have to install pollution controls for emissions of nitrous oxides, mercury and other toxics under new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules. Estimated cost: as much as $1.1 billion. If Congress or the EPA imposes limits on carbon dioxide emissions, NGS’s position in relation to the Clean Air Act would be even more tenuous.

Second, the water service contract between Salt River Project and the Bureau of Reclamation that supplies water to the power plant expires in 2014.

Third, the power plant is on Navajo land, and the 50-year site lease for the plant, as well as the rights-of-way for transmission lines, railroads and haul roads, expires in December 2019.

Finally, the power plant uses 34,100 acre-feet a year of water from the Upper Basin of the Colorado River. Arizona’s share of that water under the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact is 50,000 acre-feet a year. The Navajo Tribe has claimed all of Arizona’s share under the Winters Doctrine. The Hopi also have a claim under the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. In the original water contract to supply NGS drawn up in the late ’60s, the Navajo Nation waived all rights to Upper Colorado River water in exchange for job preference at the mine and power plant, the exclusive right to sell coal to supply the mine, an allocation of power from the plant to the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, $125,000 over five years for Navaho Community College (now Diné College) and some CAP water. The resolution passed by the Navajo Nation Tribal Council says the tribe promises to limit its claim to 50,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water per year “for the term of the lifetime of the proposed power plant, or for 50 years, whichever shall occur first.” That 50 years is up in 2016, just one year after the life-of-mine permit expires in 2015.

Given this constellation of environmental requirements and expiring leases and contracts, Joe Browder, who worked on environmental issues in the Carter administration and is now an international consultant on energy development, says, “It is inevitable that NGS will go through some kind of transition. Since the transition will occur anyway, and funds will be invested to make that happen.… It’s not some radical dream for the tribes to think they could get a better deal.”

Clark says the Flagstaff meeting looked at two main questions: “How do we talk about what this transition should be? And how do we present our ideas to tribal and federal leadership in such a way that our ideas will be part of their discussions? We hope to elevate this issue to a top priority in President Obama’s second term.”

The options for converting NGS into a cleaner generator are many. The Navajo Reservation has excellent solar potential, according to the NREL report, and for some, solar is the preferable—or indeed the only—answer. In addition to conventional solar farms, Clark, citing a draft working paper on NGS prepared by the Grand Canyon Trust, suggests the possibility of covering the CAP canals with photovoltaic solar panels.

Natural gas could be another option as a stand-alone or it could be combined with solar, says Browder. “Tribes could offer a combination of solar and natural gas generation, which would be of real value to the utilities and their customers,” he says.

Other possibilities include the sale of the water used at NGS to cities such as Las Vegas, which, according to Clark, is paying $2,000 to $3,000 an acre-foot. The water used at NGS—which the tribes have or say they can claim—would be worth at least $68.2 million. Another option would be to use California’s carbon market. In the global carbon market, says Clark, there are examples of indigenous people earning revenues by not cutting down their forests. Not turning organic carbon, in the form of Black Mesa coal, into atmospheric carbon could work the same way. Not running NGS could also produce revenues. At the low end, the global carbon market is paying $10 per ton of emissions. At that figure, the carbon dioxide emitted by NGS would be worth approximately $200 million a year.

Regardless of which option (or options) is pursued, the effort will have to be led by the Department of the Interior (DOI). Clark says the Trust’s key point is that there needs to be a commitment from DOI, the Department of Energy and the EPA to come up with a sensible solution to a unique set of problems and to look at a transition plan involving the development of economic alternatives for Native peoples, providing low-cost electricity for CAP and reducing the health impacts of the mine and power plant on the Navajo and Hopi people. Several of the steps needed to keep NGS going or to create alternative energy sources will require an environmental impact statement. There is interest in the environmental and business communities in looking at the life-cycle costs of projects, which could mean, for the first time, quantifying the long- and short-term health and social impacts of coal-based generation in general and NGS in particular.

Bluehouse suggests a principle under which such a plan could evolve. If an orderly transition is going to occur, “we have to cooperate with people in Phoenix, Tucson and Southern California who use the electricity produced at NGS in a civil, respectful negotiation. We should plan this transition with compassion and humanity among all the people involved. We all have to be at the same level in terms of non-Indians and Indians.”

Despite years of struggle, which Janene Yazzie, Navajo, and others say was fostered by the federal government in order to obtain cheap coal and water from the Navajo and Hopi people, Bluehouse says he saw at the meeting “no hard feelings between Navajo and Hopi,” but rather a group of well-informed young, middle-aged and elderly people who had gathered to work collaboratively. He added, “We will have to pull together as brothers and sisters to handle this.”