History of Coal in the Navajo Nation

By Sydney Fernandez

Coal production began on the Navajo Nation in the 1960’s with the opening of the Four Corners Plant. (Associated Press) and as of the present day the coal investment in the region included four coal-fired power plants and three coal mines. (Scientific American). 

Coal-as-energy has a dichotomous relationship with the Navajo Tribe, which has historically benefitted substantially from the economic investment in the region while also bearing the bulk of the health issues associated with coal production and coal-fired power plants. The Four Corners Plant is in the process of shuttering its doors, and with it the coal mine that feeds the plant. Together, mine and plant employ more than 700 mostly Navajo workers, and are owned by the Navajo Transitional Energy Co., a business entity under tribal ownership. With the end of coal on the reservation coming sharply into focus on the tribe’s horizon, the Navajo Transitional Energy Co. has expressed its commitment to diversifying both its energy sources and its economic outlook. (Associated Press). 

The Navajo now find themselves within a transitionary period. With New Mexico and Arizona’s largest public utility companies pledging to divest from coal and reach zero carbon emissions roughly by 2045, the tribe is heeding what is largely seen as a national call to approach sustainable energy development along the same timeframe. The tribe already owns several solar plants in Kayenta, Arizona, and the tribe’s president, Jonathan Nez, has stated publicly his commitment to this cause “we are moving forward with renewable energy as our top priority. (Associated Press). 

Many questions remain regarding the timeline and feasibility of the Navajo Nation’s rocky transition into renewable energy, such as wind and solar. Experts agree that the tribal geography is highly copacetic to renewable sources, owing to strong winds, ample sunshine, vast open land, and proximity to transmission systems. However, challenges persist, including conflicts with grazing leases, and how revenue from the sites will be distributed. Amanda Ormond, a consultant for the Arizona Energy Office, outlines the risks and rewards at stake for the Navajo: “the transmission will eventually get absorbed by somebody, and there could be no benefit to the tribe whatsoever.” (Scientific American). 

Still, intrepid Navajo tribespeople are initiating efforts to take control of their energy future and secure robust, renewable energy initiatives. Navajo Power is a solar initiative championed by members of the tribe, and they plan to build 10 gigawatts of solar capacity directly on tribal land, capitalizing on the existing energy infrastructure and democratizing the profits among Navajo ownership. Brett Isaac, a Navajo Nation member and founding member of Navajo Power, hopes that the investment will fuel additional development. Their efforts are profoundly visionary in nature. “If we’re going to get renewable energy done in a way that isn’t reminiscent of what other energies have done to Navajo and other indigenous communities, we had to integrate philosophy into the development process that would be fair, and in tune with how development should occur on tribal land,” said Isaac. (Scientific American)

Bibliography:

  1. Coal’s Day’s in Navajo Country are Numbered. The Scientific American. Benjamin Storrow, April 8th, 2019 https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/coals-days-in-navajo-country-are-numbered/
  2. Coal Industry on Navajo Nation could End with Plant Closure. Associated Press News. Felicia Fonseca, January 23rd, 2020. https://apnews.com/13994822a3d38d2a22c11b34efcf4807

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