Follow through on energy promises to Navajo people

Follow through on energy promises to Navajo people
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When it comes to congressional hearings, big business and CEOs attract most of the headlines. Yet, Congress is at its best when it focuses on the real-world impacts of policy decisions and the people it was created to serve.

A recent Energy and Minerals oversight hearing chaired by Rep. Gosar (R-Ariz.)may not have been the Hill’s top-billed event, but it shed important new light on one of the most critical economic issues facing the Southwestern United States: the potential closure of the Navajo Generating Station (NGS) and the federal government’s trust responsibility to tribal people.

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The NGS hearing represents an effort on the part of lawmakers to revisit their responsibility to the Navajo Nation, the Hopi Tribe, the people of Arizona and federal taxpayers. NGS was built at the direction of Congress to provide a long-term source of power to move water across the central and southern parts of Arizona. Access to this water was vital for the state’s economic growth and made possible by the Central Arizona Project, a massive infrastructure project built over two decades and funded by federal taxpayers. 

 

NGS was developed on tribal lands using tribally owned coal with the intention it would operate 70 years, providing sustaining tribal government funds and jobs for the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe. Revenues from the sale of a portion of the plant’s power, in turn, pay down the taxpayer debt. Unfortunately, the plant’s owners announced last year their intent to close the plant 25 years ahead of schedule. We cannot allow this to happen. 

The impacts of shutting the plant down early would be both broad and acute. The loss of the baseload capacity NGS provides would make the region’s electrical grid less diverse and less reliable. A study released last fall found that decommissioning NGS would leave remaining power generators — specifically nuclear and natural gas plants — ill-equipped to deal with a major interruption in supply. In other words? Without NGS, consumers from Phoenix to Los Angeles face increased odds of brownouts and blackouts.

Municipal and industrial water rates also would be impacted with higher costs. Research from Energy Ventures Analysis shows that, if the Central Arizona Project board were to purchase its power from NGS long term, it would save hundreds of millions of dollars. On the other hand, water ratepayers would face roughly 30 percent higher municipal and industrial rates over the next 10 years.

The impacts on Arizona’s power and water supply are eye opening. But the subcommittee hearing more directly focused on the economic toll of closure. And for the hundreds of workers and hundreds of thousands of tribal people impacted, a solution-oriented discussion about the future of NGS is important. 

The Navajo Generating Station, as the name suggests, is located on tribal land. And far from being a simple namesake, tribal communities are deeply connected to the plant and the Kayenta Mine, which supplies it with coal.

Almost all of the 825 mostly union workers that operate the plant and mine are Native American. They enjoy excellent pay and good benefits capable of supporting a family, and their extended families without leaving their traditional homeland. The Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe also depend on coal and power plant revenues to fund their tribal governments — a subject that should be very important to members of Congress given their trust obligation to the tribes. The Hopi Tribe derives 85 percent of its annual general fund from coal, and the Navajo Nation around 22 percent. 

Hearings like this don’t draw the breathless commentary spurred by events like this week’s testimony from the CEO of Facebook. But they represent some of the most important work of Congress. In the case of NGS, the support of policymakers at the federal level can speed the process of securing new owners, ensure that Central Arizona Project continues to take the power, and reinforce their sacred trust responsibility to protect the tribes and keep families together — just as Congress always intended.

Craig Stevens is a former senior advisor to Energy Secretary Sam Bodman.