Amid Coal-Plant Closures, Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe Face Economic Transition By CU Law Student Lauren Sakin

Despite President Trump’s promise to end “the war on coal,” the Hopi and Navajo Nations are facing the inevitable transition away from a coal-dependent economy due to the upcoming closure of the Navajo Generating Station (NGS) and Kayenta Mine. The Trump administration maintains that its policies will revive coal. However, so far such efforts have achieved little success. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) rejected the administration’s proposal requiring utility companies to subsidize and stockpile coal. Tribes and communities across the country must therefore plan, whether sooner or later, for a future without conventional coal. Colorado Law Professor Sarah Krakoff has begun to explore these issues, which will form part of her continuing research agenda. Ideally, a future without NGS and Kayenta Mine would provide opportunities for the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe to diversify their economies while safeguarding their land and resources. The idea of a “Just Transition,” which would provide funding for lost revenue and jobs as well as a long-term plan to create an economically and environmentally sustainable economy, has gained traction in some quarters. Colorado Law and the GWC stand ready to provide research to support such a solution, if it is a path that the Tribes themselves choose.

What Does the Colorado Plateau Mean to the University of Colorado Law School?

Recently, Colorado Law students experienced first-hand NGS’s impacts on the Navajo Nation. GWC’s executive director, Alice Madden, taught a capstone course on the history, diversity, and natural resources of the region. The seminar included a week-long road-trip on the Colorado Plateau where students met tribal leaders, attorneys, and national parks managers. According to student Gregor MacGregor “meeting people who have to make the decision and live with the decision” allows University of Colorado law students to tie together law, policy, and the people it affects.

During the trip, students met with Navajo environmental activist Nicole Horseherder, who has been an integral part of advocating for a transition that will benefit the Navajo people and their lands. According to Nicole, “everybody is tethered to this [coal] plant. Because so much water is being used and so much of the resources are being dedicated to that plant, we can’t really do anything else.” Therefore, she sees her primary role as educating the Navajo community so that they can mobilize themselves towards a self-sufficient future without NGS. Nicole’s vision is that by moving NGS to renewables, the Navajo will regain control of valuable natural resources needed for local development.

A Proposed Transition to Clean Energy.

Currently, the most environmentally and economically sustainable transition option is to replace NGS with sources of renewable energy. The topography of the region combined with the declining solar construction costs makes NGS a desirable location to install renewables. Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye has negotiated title to the rights of the transmission lines after the closure of NGS. These rights will allow the Navajo people to decide how they want to develop energy infrastructure on their land.

The initial construction and ongoing electricity generation of solar and wind energy facilities will increase the number of local jobs and replace some, though not all, of the lost tribal revenue. Careers in solar power are increasing nationwide and at a faster rate than the fossil fuel sector. Renewable energy projects on Navajo Nation that repurpose the use of the coal power transmission lines offer the Hopi and Navajo tribes an opportunity for economic and infrastructure development. If combined with transitional support from the federal government and a broader plan for a diversified economy, renewable projects could be an anchor for a sustainable future.

Utility-scale solar projects providing energy to the Navajo and Hopi tribes are already underway and providing significant economic activity. The Kayenta Solar Farm, owned by the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA) and Salt River Project (SRP), opened in August 2017. The construction of the solar farm employed approximately 236 tribal members, paying over $5.2 million to the workforce and an estimated $15.6 million in revenue to the Navajo Nation. Additionally, SRP provided 4,700 hours of specialized solar utility construction training. In January, the owners agreed to build the second phase of the project. Hopefully, this is a promising first step to make Navajo and Hopi Nations clean energy producing Tribes.

A successful transition will start with the construction of renewable projects while the power-plant begins to scale back. Collaborative planning initiatives from tribal and state governments could hasten development and attract the business investment required to fund projects. The transition to renewable energy sources will not be simple. Funding will be difficult to obtain, and technological developments are still required to make renewables a stable source of electricity. However, the closure of NGS presents a perfect opportunity to implement these changes.

At this time, NGS closure looks inevitable, and the question to ask is how to accomplish environmental sustainability while establishing social and economic justice for the Navajo and Hopi? Optimistically, a successful and just transition in the four-corners will pave the way for coal communities across the country, whether in Indian country or otherwise. The Getches-Wilkinson Center, Colorado Law, and our faculty and students hope to be a part of this larger Just Transition movement.

Lauren Sakin is a rising 2L at Colorado Law, and a GWC Research Assistant