The U.S. Department of the Interior wants feedback about the future of the Navajo Generating Station this week. Interior officials are on hand during a series of four public listening sessions that began on Monday May 15 to gather information about the 2,250-megawatt, coal-fired power plant near Page, Arizona. The plant, long criticized as one of the nation’s largest sources of pollution, is scheduled to close in 2019, eliminating thousands of jobs and upsetting the Navajo and Hopi economies.
The listening sessions, held in Page, Phoenix and the Navajo and Hopi capitals of Window Rock and Kykotsmovi, come as deadlines loom for decommissioning the plant. Tribal leaders will meet with the Interior Department during a separate meeting on Tuesday May 16.
“The intent of the planned listening sessions is to provide attendees with an opportunity to tell Interior officials what they think should be the future of NGS,” the Interior Department said in a news release. Comments will be limited to five minutes per person.
Tribal, state and local government officials are invited to attend the listening sessions this week, along with members of the public and other stakeholders. The Interior Department will not respond to comments or answer questions during the meetings.
The first listening session was from 1–4 p.m. at the Heard Museum on Monday May 15. The second one takes place on Wednesday, May 17 from 4–7 p.m. at the Page Community Center. The others are on Thursday May 18 from 11 a.m.–2 p.m. at the Kykotsmovi Community Center in Kykotsmovi, Arizona, and on Friday May 19 from 9 a.m. to noon at Nakai Hall, Navajo Nation Fairgrounds, Window Rock. Comments can also be submitted to the Interior Department at email@example.com.
For the better part of 50 years, the Navajo Generating Station has provided electricity to customers in Arizona, California and Nevada, but it also is the third largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the United States. Citing high fuel costs and a desire to transition to renewable energy sources, utility owners in February voted to close the plant by the end of 2019.
That means the Navajo Generating Station must begin decommissioning in July—unless the Navajo Nation extends the lease, buying an extra two years for stakeholders to come up with alternate plans. The Navajo Nation Council and utility owners are negotiating a lease, which must be signed by July 1.
But two years of borrowed time isn’t enough, Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates said. He is hoping the administration of President Donald Trump will step in to help preserve jobs and revenue.
“In two years, the Navajo Nation has to transition in terms of lost jobs, lost revenue,” Bates said. “Right now, we have to fill in that blank, but the Interior could step in and say two years is not enough. Is the Trump administration willing to help keep Navajo Generating Station open?”
The plant—jointly owned by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Salt River Project, Arizona Public Service, NV Energy and Tucson Electric Power—is located on land leased from the Navajo Nation. Coal comes exclusively from the Kayenta Mine, operated by Peabody Energy and located on land leased from the Navajo and Hopi nations.
Navajo Generating Station and Kayenta Mine together contribute $40 million to the Navajo Nation every year, Bates said. Two-thirds of the Hopi Nation’s annual budget comes from the plant and its accompanying mine, and the state of Arizona gets about $300 million per year.
About 400 people work at the mine and 450 are employed at the power plant. But as many as 2,000 additional workers are employed in indirect jobs—in an area where unemployment hovers near 50 percent.
“Closure is going to have a significant impact on everyone who lives in Arizona,” Bates said. “It will have a tremendous ripple effect, and when the revenue and jobs and royalties go away, lots of other things will disappear. It impacts all of us in one way or another.”
Navajo leaders are juggling two different timelines, said Jackson Brossy, executive director of the Navajo Nation Washington Office. The first is the immediate future of the power plant. Should the Nation approve a lease with utility owners, it would only extend operations by two years.
“Either we shut down and clean up right now, or if we finalize an agreement, we get two more years to give people an opportunity to transition,” Brossy said. “The short-term goal is to save those jobs for the next two years. In total, we have between 1,000 and 3,000 people whose livelihood is on the line.”
The Nation also is eyeing the big picture of transitioning the Navajo Generating Station into something sustainable in coming years, Brossy said. That could include decommissioning the coal-fired power plant and replacing it with renewable energy.
Solar power advocates believe a facility could be in place by the time NGS closes in 2019, but even that would fail to replace the lost jobs and revenue. Construction of a solar plant would create temporary jobs, but operations could, by some estimates, employ as few as 45 workers.
“It’s going to be very difficult to replace 3,000 jobs,” Brossy said. “The math behind it doesn’t work.”
Salt River Project, the largest utility owner at 42.9 percent, would consider purchasing energy from a new facility—as long as the price is competitive, spokesman Scott Harelson said. The utility also has expressed interest in continuing operations for two years as the Navajo and Hopi nations find ways to transition to renewable energy.
“If we can reach an agreement, that preserves options for the Navajo Nation and time to determine what to do,” Harelson said. “The owners recognize the plant and its importance for Navajo and Hopi. That’s why we believe operating until 2019 provides additional years of employment and allows for a more responsible transition.”
Bates wants to see a lease extension of at least five years, and he’s prepared to ask the Interior Department to enforce that.
“Given five years, we could look into investing in renewables,” he said. “If we can’t agree on terms of a lease, then decommissioning starts in July, and all the stakeholders will have to deal with the consequences.”