Global environmental challenges
Navajo Nation struggles to build coal plant
Like leaders of several other developing nations, Joe Shirley, the president of the Navajos, wants to build coal-fired power generation as fast as possible.
Shirley has been fighting to build a 1,500 megawatt plant in Northwest New Mexico called Desert Rock with a company called Sithe Global, LLC. He says it and associated mining would provide up to 400 long-term jobs for his people and pay more than $50 million annually to the nation.
The jobs sound good to some of the nearly 200,000 citizens of the Navajo Nation spread across the desert of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. An opening for a janitorial job at a Navajo college, for example, recently drew about 200 applicants. Many Navajo young men must travel to construction jobs in other states hundreds of miles away.
“It’s all about putting food on the table, putting shoes on little feet,” Shirley told reporters about the plant recently at his office in Window Rock, the capital of the Navajo Nation.
Unfortunately for Shirley, his nation, unlike other coal-rich nations like China or India, must get permitting for the plant from the United States.
For years the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration has delayed granting the plant an air permit, saying it has not had enough time to review public comments on an environmental filing on the site.
As the permitting process drags on, the cost of the plant has risen — to about $3 to $4 billion, depending on the strategy it uses to bury emissions of greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, if at all.
And local opposition to Desert Rock has risen. Many Navajos who the plant would push out of their homes south of Farmington, New Mexico have fought it. They said the plant would send most of its power to rapidly-growing Arizona and Nevada while many Navajos would continue to go without power.
Opponents said the plant would add to air pollution from two other coal plants in the area, and while strip mining of the coal and unregulated dumping of coal ash would degrade the soil.
One Navajo opponent, Sarah White helped lead a two-week blockade of the earthen roads leading to the proposed site when Sithe dug water wells for Desert Rock. She vows to keep blocking development of the site.
Meanwhile, throughout the United States, opposition has grown to plants fired by coal, which emits more CO2 than any other fuel. Plans for coal plants from Texas to Florida have been canceled, while coastal states like California and New York are beginning to regulate greenhouse emissions.
Shirley feels entitled to tap his coal, especially because the countries like the United States got rich on the stuff.
But also because China is building several coal fired power plants — every month. He said if the United States is serious about slowing output of greenhouse emissions, it should stop “picking on the poor Navajo Nation quagmired in impoverishment in its backyard” and talk more with China. “Is it because (China) is a nuclear nation?” he asks about the lack of progress.
This week the Navajo Nation announced that it plans to build a 500 MW new wind farm, which adds a new twist for their quest for energy development.
What do you think? Should the U.S. speed up approval of Desert Rock?