The long arm of California energy policy


Distinctive landmarks define Four Corners country: Lone Cone, jutting into the pale blue sky beyond the bean fields; the awesome spires of Shiprock; the looming figure of Sleeping Ute Mountain; and, rising up from a mesa above the San Juan River in northwestern New Mexico, the steam-belching concrete and steel of the Four Corners Power Plant.

If the natural features have mythologies, so do the human-made. For the last 50 years, the plant has stood as a monument to our technological domination of nature and to the power of coal. In the first years after it was built, we are told, the plant's plume of smoke was one of the few manmade objects visible to the early astronauts. Even after the stacks were cleaned up, they still emitted thousands of tons of pollutants each year, harming human health and obscuring other topographical landmarks.

According to myth, we have California, and its green ambitions, to thank: Its burgeoning cities needed cheap power, but it refused to tolerate such a polluting beast anywhere near Los Angeles or Santa Barbara. So California put the plant, along with a handful of others, out here in the Interior West, among people too few and powerless to resist.

But times have changed, and now the Golden State's new environmental policies, designed to fight global climate change, are shaking up five decades' worth of energy-colony economies. In Nevada, as Judith Lewis Mernit tells us, a small tribe is winning its fight to topple a notorious nearby coal plant, while at the same time  developing solar to sell to the Golden State. But change is a complicated thing: Witness Emily Guerin's account of how a California utility's divestment from the Four Corners plant has inspired the Navajo Nation to buy the coal mine that supplies that plant.

It's a significant move, to put it mildly. Old myths are being rewritten. But how will the new ones turn out?

A half-century from now, will we point to the region's spewing smokestacks and towering draglines as symbols of one folly piled upon another? Will future Navajos condemn their forebears for choosing to tether the tribe more tightly to coal, thereby perpetuating a doomed industry's harm to the people, land and air?

Or will we see this as an important turning point for Native American sovereignty and self-determination, a moment when the nation's largest tribal government – created in the 1920s solely to sign off on oil leases to outside corporations – finally seized control of the means of production of its natural resources? When the tribe took decisions about the coal, the workers and the profits out of the hands of far-off CEOs, and put them into the hands of its own people?

This much is clear: Whatever happens, we can't keep blaming California. The people of the Interior West are shaping our own modern myth.

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