The life and death of Desert Rock

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

 

Page 4

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.”

High Country News Classifieds
  • DIRECTOR - SONORAN DESERT INN & CONFERENCE CENTER
    The Sonoran Desert Inn & Conference Center is a non-profit lodging and event venue in Ajo, Arizona, located on the historic Curley School Campus. We...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field Seminars for adults: cultural and natural history of the Colorado Plateau. With guest experts, local insights, small groups, and lodge or base camp formats....
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....
  • HEALTH FOOD STORE IN NW MONTANA
    Turn-key business includes 2500 sq ft commercial building in main business district of Libby, Montana. 406.293.6771 /or [email protected]