Navajo Nation struggles to build coal plant

March 28, 2008

Navajo Nation President Joe ShirleyLike 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? 


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Jobs are needed on the reservation, yes.

But not from another coal plant. The reason that approval hasn’t been given is because the Desert Rock application wasn’t complete- the companies are trying to hide how much another coal plant will hurt people’s health and the land, not to mention where all the water is going to come from.

Desert Rock should not be approved. it’s a bad idea.

Posted by Sally Chrisman | Report as abusive

No, the EPA should deny the permit outright for Desert Rock due to the 12.7 million tons per year of CO2 that would be emitted, the almost 10,000 pounds per year of selenium that would be dumped in the San Juan River as a result of Desert Rock and the addition of mercury to the already degraded ecosystems in the Four Corners region (home to the Four Corners and San Juan power plants which emit a combined 29 million tons per year of CO2). The Wall Street backers of Desert Rock, Blackstone, should find better investment opportunities and Navajo Nation can do much more with renewables.

Posted by mike Eisenfeld | Report as abusive

James Hansen is one of the most respected scientists on this topic. His 1988 Congressional testimony (yes, 20 years ago) opened the policy agenda when he testified that he was 99% confident that the globe was warming and that human CO2 emissions were the cause. Despite documented attempts by the current administration to muzzle Mr. Hansen and others with messages inconvenient to what he calls “well oiled” politicians, he has continued to grow in respect and has refused to be silenced. That is largely because facts over the last 20 years have shown his predictions to be consistently and highly reliable.

He has just released a draft paper now available on Columbia University’s website (link below). In a short summary of his well-reasoned but technical paper (second link below), NRDC reports on his conclusions that current concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (about 385 ppm) are already in dangerous territory and that we should be aiming to lower concentrations back to 350 ppm, rather than aiming to stabilize them at about 450 ppm, as previously suggested.

In a separate short message (also at Columbia … third link below), Hansen dismisses claims that halting climate change is impractical. “What nonsense,” he says in his non-technical message, where Hansen provides his guidance that is directly responsive to the coal plant proposal:

(quoting) “In this paper we show that if emissions from coal are phased out linearly between 2020 and 2050 atmospheric CO2 will not exceed ~450 ppm, with the exact peak CO2 depending on the true amount of oil and gas reserves, about which there is some dispute. (Long-term coal use is permitted, but only with carbon capture and storage). The ~450 ppm CO2 peak also depends on the assumption that the world does not turn to unconventional fossil fuels (such as tar shale) as fossil fuels are depleted. Emissions from unconventional fossil fuels so far are negligible (mainly a small bit from tar sands), and that will always be the case if an appropriate price is placed on carbon emissions.” (endquote)

He goes on with some specific advice:
(quote) “People can help assure that maximum CO2 stays close to 400 ppm by vociferously opposing oil drilling in environmentally sensitive regions such as the Arctic and Antarctic, on public land, in off-shore regions where states and other governments can foil the desire of oil companies to extract every last drop of oil, etc. Of course the most effective way to assure that we do not act as desperate addicts, refusing to move to the cleaner world beyond fossil fuels, tearing up the land for every last bit of fossil fuels, is via a significant and gradually rising price on carbon emissions.”
Hansen continues:
“The public must take the lead, because there are so many “well-oiled” officials in our governments, and not just in the United States. To summarize the present and prior discussions, important things that the public can do are:
1. Fight for a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants,
2. Oppose extraction of fossil fuels in public and environmentally sensitive regions,
3. Vote for politicians who take the Stewardship pledge
( 20070802_Stewardship.pdf)
— do not vote for “well-oiled” politicians who accept funding from fossil fuel interests.” (endquote).

Those who have bet on James Hansen being wrong have usually lost. I am betting that he knows what he is talking about. Defeating domestic addicts seeking to sacrifice our children’s future for current jobs will be manageable. The hard nut to crack will be China, which is building new coal-fired plants every day. But the first step in getting your friend “clean and sober” is to get clean and sober oneself. Jan. 20, 2009 can’t come too soon.

Links: tCO2_20080317.pdf f/danger_zone.html 0080324_Rampant.pdf

Doug Simpson, Hartford, CT

Posted by Doug Simpson | Report as abusive

Your otherwise excellent article neglects to mention that the fundamental basis for opposing Desert Rock is that wind and solar provide more jobs, more revenue, and better economic multipliers for the Navajo than mining and burning coal. What the Chinese do is irrelevant–mining and burning coal is not the most effective way to produce sustainable economic development for the Navajo. Liquidating natural capital has never been an effective way for developing nations to create economic wealth–sustainable economic development for the Navajo should be based on culturally appropriate, value-added products, not colonial exploitation.

Posted by Paul Sheldon | Report as abusive

I am the lawyer for Dooda Desert Rock, a Navajo grassroots group that opposes the power plant. No, it is not about “food on the table” or “shoes on little feet.” It is about funding a bloated centralized bureaucracy.

Posted by James W. Zion | Report as abusive

It should absolutely be built. It must be built. There is a huge power need in the region and whether or not renewables are built and additional conservation measures are undertaken (we think they should be), they will not be able to meet the power need without new generation.

Secondly, this plant will be the cleanest plant of its kind. It will have virtually no regional haze pollution and those that it will have will be offset by projects at other places in region. The carbon emissions will be 20% less due to its efficiency. As well, it will use 85% less water than a typical power plant through air cooling because water in the region is such a valuable resource. The Navajo Nation sits on vast coal resources and that translates into revenue for the nation. The Navajo Nation ought to have the ability (by its 66-7 vote in Tribal council and President Shirley’s support) to turn its vast resources into tangible benefits for its people.

Finally, the tangible benefits are significant. The Nation would gain more than $50 million in revenue a year for the life of the project. Those dollars mean direct improvements in the daily lives of Navajos. Improvements in infrastructure (roads, power hook ups, stand-alone renewables), education, health and wellness or safety can all be funded by the revenue — which currently amounts to about 30% of the Nation’s entire budget. The 400 permanent jobs and thousands of construction jobs over a four-year period will help a people torn by 50% unemployment.

The choice is easy. Significant power needs; Clean, advanced environmental performance; The economic needs of the Navajo People. That is why the Navajos invited Sithe Global to help them build this huge economic development opportunity. It is why they will succeed.

Frank Maisano
Desert Rock Energy Project Spokesman

Posted by Frank Maisano | Report as abusive

Let us look at the broader picture facing the Navajo nation and our social conscience. The United States should not speed up approval of Desert Rock or any such other coal-burning power plants. Burning a non-renewable resource, whatever its nature and origin is selfish and wasteful. The United States must focus on generously funding research grants, giving major tax incentives, and aggressively encouraging energy from sources that are either overwhelmingly preponderant in nature, such as solar, wind, or geothermal, so that our massive usage does not make a dent in their existence; or alternately on highly efficient sources of energy such as nuclear power.

To say that the Navajo nation would get $50 million is an impressive number. To say that there are 200,000 citizens of the Navajo nation subdues that dollar figure: it amounts to $250 per person per year. Surely there must be much better ways to get ample funding to the Navajo nation.

If the enthusiasm for coal still runs high in the Desert Rock area, there is a major opportunity available. Again, with proper incentives and very clearly defined rules of operation, an industrial consortium can be invited to establish a coal liquefaction and/or coal gasification plant in the area. This would bring the full-time jobs the Navajo nation sorely needs. And what is far more important, the full-time jobs would be of a much higher professional level. The Navajo nation would benefit immensely from the technical, vocational, professional and industrial educational skills required to operate this kind of operation. It has been seen in many parts of the world where the native population has benefited from a rise in educational opportunities, and with it has come commensurate gains in economic, family, and citizenship values.

Posted by J W St Lauren | Report as abusive

The Navajo Nation will also be able to buy 25 percent of the company if it chooses, which would result in more revenue coming to our nation. We can become a rich nation by mining the coal for ourselves (25 percent investment could go along way), how much is the company project to make every year. The coal is gonna run out, and we need to use it to build our economy for our future generations of people, as the Navajo population is expected to increase to 1 million people in 2040 according to the tribe. We are what, 50 years away from the rest of the nation, and they are getting futhur away.

With the closure of the other mine back in 2005, our royalties was wiped out by 40 million, and times that by about 5 or 6, which could be 260 million dollars a year if we mine the coal for ourselves.

Posted by Dine | Report as abusive