Environmental victories don’t guarantee economic justice

Without a just transition, the Navajo Generating Station closure will have harmful consequences.

 

Last year, climate-hawk billionaire Tom Steyer forked out more than $23 million to support an Arizona ballot initiative that would have required the state’s utilities to get half their power from renewable sources by 2035. Arizonans for Affordable Energy, a front-group for the state’s largest utility, Arizona Public Service, spent nearly $38 million in opposition. The initiative — which failed — was the most expensive ballot measure campaign in the state’s history.

Meanwhile, a group called Save Native American Families, funded by the Navajo Nation, spent an additional $785,000 opposing the measure. This might seem odd. After all, it’s becoming more and more clear that the ravages of environmental degradation — climate change included — have a disproportionately large impact on Indigenous people, people of color and the poor.

Yet too often, the victims of the very efforts to stem that degradation come from disadvantaged communities. A fuel tax takes a greater portion of the income of someone driving an old beater between two jobs than it does from a wealthy, SUV-driving gas-guzzler. If you don’t own a house, you can’t take advantage of rooftop solar incentives, and yet may have to pay for your wealthier neighbors via increased electricity costs. And the great coal phase-out has failed to faze coal corporation executives, who pay themselves multimillion-dollar bonuses while yanking health insurance and retirement benefits out from under retired miners.

This can be the result of badly crafted policies or of wily corporate polluters who have managed to shift the burden of environmental policies onto those in the lower income brackets. Regardless, the dynamic often results in environmental justice coming at the expense of economic justice. But it doesn’t have to be that way.  

The Navajo Generating Station, near Page, Arizona, silhouetted at sunrise.

Take the case of the Navajo Generating Station in northern Arizona. In early 2017, the majority owner of the plant, the Salt River Project, announced that it would shut down the plant at the end of this year, forcing the closure of the Kayenta Mine on Black Mesa, which is currently operated by Peabody Energy. The closure comes primarily because the plant is no longer profitable, but pollution-control requirements played an indirect role by increasing the operating costs. It is a major environmental victory, keeping more than 14 million tons of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere annually along with a slew of other harmful pollutants. It also represents a dire threat to the communities that have come to rely on the revenue from the plant and the mine. The closure will do away with as many as 900 jobs, 90 percent of which are currently held by Native American workers, in a region where unemployment hovers around 50 percent. It would also eliminate more than $50 million in royalties and other revenue to the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe. 

As a result, members of both tribal governments have fought to keep the plant open. They’ve sought outside purchasers to no avail, and they’ve appealed to the federal government, which owns 25 percent of the plant, to intervene. And now the tribe’s own Navajo Transitional Energy Company is looking to purchase both coal mine and power plant and keep it running — and polluting — for decades to come.

Indigenous opposition groups, such as ToNizhoniAni, Diné CARE and Black Mesa Water Coalition, have made concerted efforts to stop the purchase, because it would mean taking on financial risk while also allowing the plant and mine to continue to inflict harm. Meanwhile, the major outside environmental groups that have badgered the Navajo Generating Station for years — and remain deeply invested in keeping the plant closed — are in a difficult position. Any interference with the plant’s purchase would constitute an attack on sovereignty and a continuation of the same resource colonization that brought the power plants and mines to the Navajo Nation in the first place. Yet if the environmental groups stand idly by, they risk allowing serious environmental and human harm to continue.

There is a middle way, though. Environmental groups can work with the affected communities, the polluting companies and the relevant governments to push the current owners to live up to their moral duty and repair the damage they’ve done, to make amends for historical land and resource theft, and to patch up the economic hole their departure leaves. They can help pave the way for a just transition away from coal, one in which a solid framework is provided for affected communities to exercise agency and move forward to a greener and more economically robust future. 

The initial pain of closure can be soothed by ensuring that the corporate owners live up to their legal obligation to adequately reclaim both the power plant and mine sites, a commitment that will keep hundreds of jobs active for several years after closure. And even though they are not legally obliged to do so, the corporate owners have a moral duty to take the reclamation further by healing the damage caused by dumping nearly 1 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and poisoning the land, the air and the water — along with the people and other creatures — in the plant’s vicinity. The damage can’t be reversed, nor can much of the mess be cleaned up. But the corporations that are responsible can contribute to the healing by creating a just transition fund that could retrain power plant workers, provide loans for green energy entrepreneurs in the affected community, or perhaps go toward tribally developed utility-scale projects, such as the solar plant recently constructed by the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority near Kayenta, Arizona. This healing process can begin by restoring water rights and transferring transmission lines to the Navajo and Hopi nations as soon as the plant closes.

A Peabody Coal Company strip-mining rig on Black Mesa in Northeastern Arizona, c. 1973.
Lyntha Scott Eiler / Documerica / U.S. National Archives’ Local Identifier: 412-DA-1885

Such an initiative does not come cheap. But the money not only exists; it is owed to the tribal citizens who have been bilked by corporations for decades. Peabody began mining on Navajo and Hopi land on Black Mesa in the 1960s, displacing families and destroying grazing lands and cultural artifacts, sucking up groundwater at a rate of 1.3 billion gallons per year, and shipping the coal — which was owned by the tribes — off to the Navajo and Mojave power plants. In return, the tribes received just 2 to 6 percent royalty for the coal, an amount that was finally increased to the still-below-standard rate of 12.5 percent in 1984. There it has stood since, another product of the bad-faith negotiations that were facilitated by the federal government.

“Royalty” is a euphemism that is employed to obscure what is really going on here: For nearly five decades, these corporations have paid mere pennies on the dollar to wreck tribal land, take the coal that belongs to the citizens of the Hopi and Navajo nations and burn it in power plants that, in turn, poison the land and people of those very same nations. By not adequately compensating the tribes for their coal, the coal company and its customers have cheated the tribes’ citizens out of billions of dollars.

The resulting cheap power lights up the neon of Las Vegas, while the Colorado River water that the plant’s electricity pumps has enabled Phoenix and Tucson to sprawl into the desert, enriching the operators of the Southwest’s growth machine: real estate developers, mass-production homebuilders, the automotive industry, the corporate shareholders, the ratepayers and the executives. Arizona Public Service, 14 percent owner of the generating station, raked in half a billion dollars in profit last year. Peabody’s CEO is paid $20 million a year to run a company that just emerged from bankruptcy. They are all beneficiaries of outright theft.

And then there’s that $63 million squandered on the renewable energy initiative campaign. That money could have offset a year of the tribal government revenue lost owing to the plant’s closure. That same amount could have bought and installed more than 4,000 solar systems in low-income households, providing hundreds of jobs while cutting emissions. Or the money could have been put into a just transition fund. Instead it was squandered on public relations campaigns that certainly brought no environmental gain.

The Navajo Generating Station and the coal mines on Black Mesa were built on a foundation of theft and colonialism. But closing them down will not help unless it is done in a just way, one that heals old wounds rather than opening new ones.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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