The Navajo Generating Station is a coal-fired power plant in Page, Arizona. The coal that supplies the facility is owned by the Hopi Tribe and the Navajo Nation. The plant itself is located on the Navajo Nation. Photo: Bill Morrow
Environment | National | Politics

House committee looks to boost troubled Indian Country coal facility

President Donald Trump famously ended the so-called war on coal when he took office more than a year ago but that hasn't improved the outlook for a troubled coal-fired power plant in Indian Country.

The Navajo Generating Station in Arizona is slated to close next year, a move that would sending shock waves through the Hopi Tribe and the Navajo Nation. As owners of the coal that supplies the plant, they have long depended on royalties from the operation, and their citizens have long benefited from jobs in a place where employment opportunities can often be scarce.

“Too often we equate the Navajo Generating Station with only dollars and cents,” LoRenzo Bates, the leader of the Navajo Nation Council, said at a "Yes to NGS" rally in February. “The real story is about the traditional working family and the work they do to benefit tribal people and families across Arizona.”

But the actual owners and operators of the facility, rather than the tribes, are in far more control of the situation. Due to market conditions that haven't changed significantly since Trump's detente, they are eager to leave the station by the end of next year.

That leaves the tribes wondering what to do once the coal royalties stop coming in. Those revenues are responsible for an estimated 85 percent of the Hopi Tribe's budget and 22 percent of the Navajo Nation's. More than 800 workers, the majority of whom are Native American, could lose their jobs as a result.

And that's where Republicans in Congress come in. With a hearing in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, they are pitching the decommissioning of the plant as an economic disaster in the making, one with impacts far beyond Indian Country..

“A closure of the plant would result in significant job loss in nearby tribal communities, could increase water rates in the region, and may potentially disrupt the electric grid,” a memo prepared by GOP staff reads.

Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates addresses a "Yes to NGS" rally in support of the Navajo Generating Station at the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix on February 6, 2018. Photo: Navajo Nation Council

To support the cause, Bates is testifying on behalf of the Navajo Nation Council at the hearing. The witness list also includes Dr. Andrew Curley, a Navajo citizen whose research has focused on coal development and who called the pending closure a broken promise to his people in High Country News last year.

But the proceeding won't be 100% pro-coal. Unlike prior hearings in which the House Committee on Natural Resources has been accused of ignoring tribal voices, other witnesses are bringing some different messages to D.C.

Representing the Hopi Tribe will be Chairman Tim Nuvangyaoma, a former radio show host on the reservation. He's a political newcomer who previously told Cronkite News that diversification in economic development was the way to go when it comes to the generating station.

Also testifying is Nicole Horseherder, a Navajo citizen who has questioned her tribe's dependence on coal. "Now is the time for bold vision, not begging," the clean air and clean water advocate wrote in The Navajo Times a year ago.

Missing from the action, though, is the Trump administration. No one from the Department of the Interior, which is a part owner of the Navajo Generating Station, is on the witness list.

But Secretary Ryan Zinke, who has repeatedly touted Trump's stance on coal, has said the department wants to keep the facility up and running as long as possible.

"Interior is committed to working with all parties, to include current or any future owners, to keep the #NavajoGeneratingStation power plant operational in support of good paying #tribal #jobs," Zinke said in a post on Twitter as Bates and other supporters rallied in Phoenix on February 6.

The hearing before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources takes place at 10am Eastern and will be webcast. The full witness list follows:
Speaker LoRenzo C. Bates
Speaker of the Navajo Nation Council
Navajo Nation
Window Rock, Ariz.

Mr. George Bilicic
Vice Chairman of Investment Banking
Global Head of Power, Energy, and Infrastructure
Chicago, Ill.

Dr. Andrew Curley
University of North Carolina Chapel Hill
Department of Geography
Chapel Hill, N.C.

The Honorable Mark Finchem
Arizona Legislature
District 11
Phoenix, Ariz.

Ms. Nicole Horseherder
To'Nizhoni Ani
Member of Navajo Nation
Kykotsmovi, Ariz.

Ms. Marie Justice
United Mine Workers of America Local 1924
Kayenta, Ariz.

Chairman Tim Nuvangyaoma
Hopi Tribe
Kykotsmovi, Ariz.

Mr. Seth Schwartz
Energy Ventures Analysis
Arlington, Va.

House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources Notice:
Oversight Hearing, "The Benefits of the Navajo Generating Station to Local Economies" (April 12, 2018)

Related Stories:
Cronkite News: Marchers rally for power plant on Navajo Nation (February 7, 2018)
Cronkite News: Hopi Tribe elects new leaders amid an uncertain economic future (November 8, 2017)
Cronkite News: Navajo Nation remains hopeful about future of coal power plant (October 3, 2017)
Trump administration repeals rule designed to maximize Indian coal revenues (August 4, 2017)
Cronkite News: Navajo Nation prepares for changes at coal power plant (June 28, 2017)
Cronkite News: Navajo Nation still working to save coal power plant (May 8, 2017)
Interior Department pulls back rule designed to maximize Indian coal revenues (April 4, 2017)
Tribes with coal resources look to Trump administration for change (April 3, 2017)
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