The Closure of the West's Largest Coal Plant Could Be a Test For the Green New Deal

The sun sets on the Navajo Generating Station.
Photo: AP

The sun has set on the Navajo Generating Station, which burned its last pile of coal earlier this month. Economics finally caught up with the West’s largest coal plant, forcing it to shutter as cheap natural gas and renewables made it irrelevant to the energy grid.

The plant leaves behind a complicated legacy. The power station depleted groundwater and polluted skies and landscapes. It also brought jobs and revenue to one of the poorest places in the U.S. The Navajo and Hopi tribes supported by the plant fought to keep it open, going so far as to consider buying it. With that plan failing, it’s possible to imagine a new future for the area. One that cleans up the scars the coal plant left behind and puts the Navajo Nation and Hopi tribe at the forefront of the just transition, a framework that ensures vulnerable communities aren’t left behind as the world moves to renewable energy.

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When you hear the words “coal country,” Appalachia likely comes to mind. But the Navajo Nation lies at the center of the Southwest’s coalfields. The territory’s Kayenta Mine fed the Navajo Generating Station from 1974 until it delivered the plant’s last load of coal in August.

The plant and mine kicked millions of dollars in revenue into the coffers of the Navajo Nation and Hopi Reservation, which sits surrounded by the former. And they provided hundreds of jobs for the nearby communities.

“It fit into the cultural rhythm in terms of the way our people adopted the Western way of working,” Tony Skrelunas, the president of the Black Mesa Water Coalition and founder of the Navajo Power Solar Company, told Earther. “A lot of my family worked at a power plant and at the coal mine. But we didn’t know what a bad deal we were getting.”

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In addition to low rates for the lease and mining royalties, Skrelunas pointed to the environmental degradation that comes with a mine and massive coal-fired power plant. The Navajo Generating Station consistently ranked as one of the top 10 sources of carbon pollution in the U.S., belching out 8.6 million tons of carbon dioxide annually as well as heavy metals and other pollutants. And while dumping toxic stuff into the atmosphere and onto the landscape, the Navajo Generating Station sucked up more than 9 billion gallons of water per year. The nearby mine that supported it used a further 391 million gallons annually.

If the environmental tradeoffs seem bad, they look even worse when you consider who reaped the majority of the rewards. The plant was commissioned in 1974 to supply cheap power to the burgeoning Southwest. Power lines carried electricity off the reservation to communities throughout Arizona, California, and Nevada while homes on the Navajo Nation remained in the dark. Even today, 10 percent of households in the Navajo Nation don’t have electricity.

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But for all these historical injustices, the plant’s closure opens the door to a future without coal, one that could prepare the Navajo Nation for the 21st century and start to right past wrongs. The situation puts the tribe squarely in the middle of the discussion about how to support the communities hardest hit by the economics of energy.

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The term “just transition” has been around awhile, but it was brought into the political mainstream by the Green New Deal. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s bill states that any policies organized under it would “promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous peoples.” For the Navajo Nation, that could mean ensuring its economy can diversify.

.A research brief co-authored by Skrelunas earlier this year identified four key opportunities that could transform the Navajo Nation’s economy in the wake of the Navajo Generating Station’s closure. The first two are working to decommission and remediate the plant and mine. The Salt River Project, the utility company that ran the plant, has five years to decommission the plant and planning is underway to do so. The company told the Navajo Times it would award two contracts, and Skrelunas argued that they should be given to local contractors.

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He also pointed to tourism as another way to replace lost revenue. Clean energy also presents a huge opportunity for the tribe, which has lands bathed in bountiful sunshine and transmission infrastructure left over from the Navajo Generating Station. Investing in solar panel manufacturing on the reservation could slow the climate damage the power plant started and put residents who worked there back to work in a growing sector. (Skrelunas spoke highly of the work of Navajo welders, including his dad, employed by the coal industry.) It would also keep money in the nation and could help local businesses flourish.

Skrelunas isn’t the only one eying clean energy. Earlier this year, a Navajo Nation legislator introduced a bill to encourage utility-scale solar to replace the coal plant and use its transmission lines to put power on the grid. And in August, the tribe’s president signed a declaration saying the government “will pursue and prioritize clean renewable energy development for the long-term benefit of the Navajo People and our communities.”

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“When you get into the older years, you have a new responsibility to ensure the future generations, seven generations down the road have plenty of clean water and a clean environment,” Percy Deal, a Navajo Nation member whose family has lived near the plant for generations, told Earther.

For all the proclamations and ideas, the tribe still has to overcome decades of disinvestment. To ensure those opportunities are there, Karl Cates, an analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, pointed to a congressional bill that, if you squint, wouldn’t look out of place as part of the Green New Deal. Except it wasn’t introduced by one of the members of the Squad. It came from the office of Representative Tom O’Halleran, one of the House’s more conservative Democrats, who represents the Navajo Nation along with a large swath of Arizona that went for Trump in 2016. He also used to be a Republican.

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Introduced in September, the PROMISE Act would create a new office within the Department of Interior to reinvest in coalfield communities. The effort would be modeled on a Department of Defense program that’s been around since the 1960s and took care of communities during a wave of military base closures in the 1980s. Though O’Halleran’s bill doesn’t focus specifically on renewable energy, it would provide funds and guidance for remediation, job training, and other key components of a just transition. It would also replace lost tax revenue and royalties, which in turn would protect against local budget shortfalls for things like firefighters, healthcare, and education.

While the bill doesn’t appropriate any money for the new office and is still a long way from passing the House (let alone finding a companion in the Senate), its promise is that it comes from a moderate Democrat. In our climate of political polarization and with the current makeup of the House, any national-level just transition planning will need at least some moderate support.

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“This is a way for this country to reinvest in communities that have given so much to the national economy over the years,” Cates told Earther, calling it a bipartisan approach to help coalfield communities through the transition in “Kentucky to the Powder River Basin to Appalachia to the Illinois Basin” and beyond.

If the proposed legislation or bills like it are passed, they will need community buy-in from the Navajo Nation to be genuinely equitable. And the Salt River Project and Peabody Coal (which ran the Kayenta Mine) would also need to chip in their fair share and listen to community concerns. Wherever it comes from, truly just transition must include informed consent and respect of tribal rights. To Skrelunas, it’s all about finding solutions that “really make sure that the community and our culture is protected.”

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