The life and death of Desert Rock

The Navajo Nation's proposed coal plant always rested on shaky ground. Now, it may collapse entirely.


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In the past, some Navajo Council delegates have complained about the authority's lack of results. In response, in 2003, the tribe's Office of Management and Budget prepared a report, questioning the authority's funding and its timelines for projects. Between 1990 and 2003, it found, the tribe had given DPA $9,373,381 "for the transmission project with no return to the nation." Diné CARE's Goodman estimates that the tribal council has allocated $20 million to the authority since 1990. OMB executive director Dominic Beyal agrees that Goodman is close. 

According to Hoisington, DPA has a staff of eight, and its budget goes mostly toward travel. "With delays in the (power plant) project, we have to have meetings not only regionally, but on a national level," he says. "We do a lot of presentations ... and we have to use consultants to help us move forward with the project, legally, environmentally and engineering-wise." 

He also says that the power authority has put some of the $20 million toward the transmission line's Environmental Impact Statement and "other studies" to determine which route would have the least impact. But those studies would have been paid for by the developers funding the projects, including Trans-Elect, an early investor in the transmission line, and Sithe. Unfortunately, it's impossible to say definitively how DPA has spent its money: Tribal governments are not obligated to comply with open-records laws.

Through most of the challenges, President Shirley's office has firmly maintained that Desert Rock is still a go, and Sithe and its public relations team have agreed. But early this year, the company pulled back from plans for two of its three coal-fired power proposals in the United States. In February, it abandoned a 300-megawatt waste-coal plant in Pennsylvania. In March, it transformed plans for its Toquop Energy Project near Mesquite, Nev., into a 700-megawatt natural gas plant with a 100-megawatt solar component. 

Shortly after, Sithe Executive Vice President Dirk Straussfeld admitted that the company is also actively reviewing Desert Rock to take into account economic and regulatory changes. The company is in discussion with utilities to learn what types of power resources they are seeking for the future: Desert Rock can only go forward if it has customers. Essentially, everything is on the table, he says, including perhaps the plant's design. "There is no need in 2015 for this, so it might be delayed," Straussfeld says, adding that Sithe has no plans to resubmit its air-permit application to the EPA. 

Steven Begay, general manager of the Dine Power Authority, has insisted the tribe will find a new company if Sithe balks. "Desert Rock is still on track," says presidential spokesman George Hardeen. "It's going to provide jobs that are needed on Navajo -- people are getting poorer, and Navajos want jobs."

But it's clear the tribal government is becoming increasingly desperate. For years, in response to environmentalists' lawsuit over the Navajo transmission line's environmental analysis, the tribe and project proponents claimed that the line and Desert Rock were two separate endeavors. Now, however, they say that building Desert Rock and the transmission line together is the only way the tribe can develop and market its renewable energy resources.

"The Desert Rock power plant is a keystone to building the capacity for tribal energy to be developed in a win-win scenario," says CERT's Lester. It's the lack of transmission that thwarts full development of renewable resources on the Navajo, Hopi and Hualapai reservations, he says. The nation is dotted with orphaned wind-farm proposals -- only a large-scale coal or natural gas plants can justify something as expensive as a 500-kilovolt line. "If we want the vast solar resources of the Colorado Plateau to be developed, we've got to have a transmission line," he says. "And Desert Rock would provide that transmission line."

Even if Lester is right, Desert Rock as coal plant looks to be on its deathbed. Its biggest proponent is on his way out of power. In July, Shirley lost a court bid to throw out term limits so he could run again this fall. And though the project probably won’t be a major issue in the election, neither candidate vying to replace Shirley overtly supports Desert Rock in its current form. The Navajo primary winner, state Sen. Lynda Lovejoy, says Sithe needs to deal with local concerns about how the 1,500 megawatt plant would deplete water supplies and affect air quality. The company also needs to commit to employing Navajos and training them to take on administrative and managerial jobs, she adds, and to the long-term well-being of the tribe. Although she suggests that a smaller megawatt plant might be a better fit for the tribe, Lovejoy says she’d most like to see the company agree to give more financial control over and more financial return from the project to the Navajo. But with no commitment from the tribal council to actually invest in the plant’s construction, that seems unrealistic.

For his part, Lovejoy's opponent, current Navajo Vice President Ben Shelly, actively opposes Desert Rock and has called the project “foolish.” “There is no hope of getting that particular power plant going under President Obama,” he says. Throw in roadblocks from the EPA and other federal agencies, as well as the state’s staunch opposition, he adds, and “there is no hope that we know of that it will be built.” In other words, says Shelly, it’s time to move on. “By saying no to Desert Rock,” he says, “maybe we can focus on other sources of power.”

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