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On Navajo Nation, Power Authority slips away

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Sierra Crane-Murdoch | Apr 07, 2011 08:54 AM

On April 8, a week after Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly testified before Congress on the immense energy potential in Indian Country, the Nation's energy development enterprise, Dine Power Authority, will shut its doors, laying-off all but two of its staff.  In operation since 1985, the DPA has yet to lift one major electric energy project off Navajo ground.  Their first attempt was the Navajo Transmission Project, a plan to string power lines 400 miles from northern New Mexico to Nevada.  It stalled, and stumbled, until the agency announced its second undertaking: a 1,500-megawatt coal-fired power plant called the Desert Rock Energy Project developed by Sithe Global.  The plant would incentivize more coal mining on tribal lands and lend sense to the transmission project--an energy source to connect the dots.

But federal agencies repeatedly denied the power plant's permits, and in June 2010, Sithe Global allowed its only funding, a 3.2 billion industrial revenue bond and tax break from San Juan County, N.M., to expire.  And the project's biggest advocate, former Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr., came to the end of his term.

Navajo Generating StationNow Shirley's successor, Ben Shelly--who ironically ran on an anti-power plant platform--is pushing Desert Rock again.  Buried in the middle of his testimony before the House Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs on April 1, Shelly lauded the Navajo Nation's plans for "one of the newest and cleanest coal generating plants in the country" and said the project would create thousands of jobs for tribal members, as well as supplement a third of the Navajo Nation's budget. But that was after Shelly asked Congress to offer production and investment tax credits for renewable energy, and highlighted three potential sites for utility-scaled wind generation development. One of those sites, it so happens, was the DPA's major energy agreement number three: a 500-megawatte wind farm on Gray Mountain, near Cameron, Ariz.

In his address, Shelly made no mention of the DPA's layoffs, but he did allude to the Navajo Nation's struggle to make development appealing to energy companies without federal tax incentives.  And like other tribal leaders who testified, he lamented the constricting bureaucratic hoops the tribes must jump through to win access to their resources and royalties--hoops, apparently, that many congressmen on the committee hope to eliminate all together.

"We need to streamline this process and make sure you have the opportunity to the self-determination we promised you," said committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) at the hearing.  "This idea of not being able to do things is wrong."

Steven Begay, the DPA's general manager, told the Gallup Independent that despite the layoffs, he hoped to "loosen up some federal money that's kind of lingering." He added, "Maybe Uncle Sam doesn't want Navajo or Native Americans to build power plants.  They want us to be happy with scholarship money and hospital health money, but not help us with energy development."

Sierra Crane-Murdoch is an intern at High Country News.

Image courtesy Flickr user Nathan Rupert.

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