Out on the Navajo reservation, which spreads some 17 million acres across New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, the unemployment rate has hovered around 50 percent for decades.

Poverty is endemic to the area, where jobs are few and far between, and meaningful economic development is difficult to imagine. In some communities, a third of the population lacks electricity; in others, water still needs to be hauled from pumps miles and miles away.

But if Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. gets his way, this remote area could soon become home to a massive coal-fired power plant that would supply energy to cities such as Las Vegas or Phoenix.

The proposed 1,500 megawatt Desert Rock power plant would squat on the reservation near Burnham, some 15 miles outside of Farmington. Proponents say it will create 1,000 construction jobs and then approximately 200 permanent jobs once it’s up and running. Furthermore, because the tribe would be a partner in the project, it would receive $50 million in annual revenue.

Such a windfall couldn’t come at a better time for the reservation, according to spokesman George Hardeen.

Historically, the tribe’s budget has been largely dependent on things like mining royalties. But oil revenues have fallen—thanks to the recent drop in prices—and the tribe has opposed any new uranium mining developments on its lands. Additionally, the tribe’s coal industry took a hit two years ago when Nevada’s Mohave Generating Station plant shut down, closing the Black Mesa mines that straddle the Navajo and Hopi reservations.

If the Navajo people don’t have jobs, Hardeen says, they will leave the reservation. “If they exodus the nation, they take with them the culture, the language, the native way of life—meaning it is no longer being practiced,” Hardeen says. “President Shirley doesn’t want that to happen, and the key to doing that is developing an economy right here, which is what he hopes to do, and Desert Rock is a huge part of that plan.”

While the tribal government looks to the project as a panacea to poverty, environmentalists and some Navajos are stunned that anyone would consider building another coal-fired power plant in the Four Corners. The area is already home to two coal plants—the 1,800 megawatt San Juan Generating Station and the 2,200 megawatt Four Corners plant—as well as tens-of-thousands of oil and gas wells, each with their own diesel pumps and rigs. Recent studies, in fact, show that the area’s air quality is comparable to that of cities such as Houston, Denver and Los Angeles.

While Hardeen says the Desert Rock plant will be cleaner and more efficient than existing coal-fired power plants, the question remains: Should coal have a future?

In many ways, Desert Rock is emblematic of the challenges the country faces as it stares down the reality of climate change and the urgent need to transition to alternative energy. Americans’ traditional way of life—complete with enormous power plants and transmission lines strung across states—doesn’t appear to be sustainable, environmentally nor economically. But how committed are Americans—and their elected leaders—to change when it comes to energy?

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For more than five years, the Desert Rock Energy Company—a subsidiary of Sithe Global Power and the Navajo Nation’s Diné Power Authority—has been laying the plans for Desert Rock.

“There is some huge need for power in the region,” Sithe Global’s spokesman Frank Maisano says. Arizona and Nevada remain desperate for new sources of power, he says, and some of the power might even be used right there on the reservation, if the tribe decides to develop a local project.

As opposition to the plant has grown—both locally and nationally—boosters and proponents within the tribe have been quick to label the plant as a “clean coal” plant. According to the tribe, Desert Rock will have the “lowest emissions of any power plant in the United States” and, as an air-cooled plant, will use 80 percent less water than typical plants.

“Here, we have a design which is believed to be a very clean-burning plant that uses far less water, and people are criticizing it,” Hardeen says, “whereas the problem of global warming and air emissions results from the old-style power plants, which were designed and built in the 1960s and ’70s.” In fact, if older plants were replaced by those such as Desert Rock, he says, carbon emissions would be reduced: “It would be a benefit to the environment.”

Not everyone feels that way.

The region already has three coal-fired power plants, including two in the Four Corners, which are considered among the dirtiest plants in the country.

“They are so dirty that the area around Farmington now exceeds allowable levels of ozone, and that’s in a community with a relatively small population, while most of the places that exceed [allowable limits for ozone] are highly dense areas with many cars, for example, Los Angeles,” John Fogarty, a family practice physician who has worked for Indian Health Service since 1997 and worked for seven years in Crownpoint, on the eastern edge of the Navajo reservation, says.

 The two plants in the area have already contaminated water bodies in the state, Fogarty says, pointing out that people are advised against eating the fish that swim in 26 bodies of water in northern New Mexico because their flesh contains very high levels of mercury, a neurotoxin. Coal plants spread through the air a variety of other toxins, as well, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter—and all of those have a significant effect on public health. Those toxins are associated with asthma, pulmonary disease, increasing rates of heart attack and stroke; elevated levels of mercury also are associated with birth defects and developmental delays.

“In short, adding yet another coal-fired power plant in communities that have already been very heavily affected by coal-fired power plants is unacceptable,” Fogarty says. “And I think it’s maybe even more unacceptable because that power is going to be exported out of state to Phoenix or Las Vegas so that the communities here in New Mexico that are going to bear the brunt of those toxins, they’re not even going to be benefiting from that cheap power.”

For people living in the area, he says, Desert Rock is an issue of justice—environmental justice and economic justice.

Beyond that, however, Desert Rock is an issue of global importance. “From the perspective of climate change, if we as a society are going to come together and protect future generations from the dangerous effects of climate change, we have to begin reducing our emissions right now,” Fogarty, who also co-directs the Santa Fe-based organization New Energy Economy, says. “And more importantly, we can’t continue to build huge infrastructure that is going to continue to emit carbon into the atmosphere for another 50, 75 years.”

Once a plant like Desert Rock is built, it will continue operating for decades. And that means it will continue to emit coal for the foreseeable future.

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Last year, after Desert Rock Energy Company released a 1,500 page draft environmental-impact statement—a study required by the National Environmental Policy Act that the public is allowed to review and comment on—opponents analyzed the effects of the project upon public health, the environment and water supplies.

Aside from the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change, pollutants from the plant would include mercury, ozone, sulfates, nitrates, carbon monoxide and both fine and large particulate matter. Such emissions—on top of those already being released from the stacks of the two existing coal-fired plants—would affect everything from smog and visibility to asthma rates in the region.

Opponents also began studying the possibilities for alternative energy development in the area. Last January, Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment—a Navajo organization originally founded to oppose a proposed toxic-waste dump on the reservation in the late ’80s—released a report titled Energy and Economic Alternatives to the Desert Rock Project.

According to the report, wind and solar resources are readily available throughout the reservation. Development of those renewable energy sources would not only be cleaner for the region, but would create more jobs and position the tribe to take advantage of the inevitable shift in energy policy. As states enact renewable energy portfolios that require utilities to buy more and more power from sources such as solar and wind, coal and natural gas will become less attractive alternatives. “We’re looked [at] as an energy sacrifice zone—and we don’t want to be considered that. We want to be considered on the cusp of new technology,” Mike Eisenfeld of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, an environmental group that has been opposed to the project since its proposal, says. “The Navajo Nation and the Four Corners region could be positioned to take full-force involvement in renewable energy alternatives that could produce as much power as Desert Rock, create more jobs, be permitted faster and built faster.”

Eisenfeld has been working to oppose the plant since 2004. With a background in environmental consulting, he knows his way through the maze of federal laws—such as the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act—that dictate the way large projects, such as coal-fired power plants, come together.

He has combed through the 1,500-page environmental study, looking for errors, inconsistencies and misinformation. But Eisenfeld isn’t just looking at how much mercury the plant might embed within the cells of fish swimming in nearby streams and reservoirs or how an increase in particulate matter will affect asthma rates in the Four Corners: “There’s also the perspective of, ‘Is this something we’re going to look back on in 50 years and think, ‘Gosh, what were we doing?’”

In fact, as carbon emissions continue to rise, the most important step nations can take, according to James Hansen, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, is to cut coal from the world’s energy portfolio immediately. No new plants should be built, he says, and existing coal-fired power plants must be phased out of operation.

But it still remains to be seen how that might actually be done.

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In the absence of federal leadership on the issue of climate change and renewable energy, many states have started taking action on their own.

Here in New Mexico, two years ago, Gov. Bill Richardson declared the state would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 2000 levels by 2012, 10 percent below 2000 levels by 2020 and 75 percent below 2000 levels by 2050. (Prior to that, the Legislature had also passed a renewable portfolio for the state, mandating that 15 percent of the state’s electricity come from renewable sources by 2015 and 25 percent by 2020.)

But if built, Desert Rock would emit an estimated 12.7 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year. Greenhouse gas emissions include carbon dioxide, as well as water vapor, methane, nitrous oxide and ozone. That would undoubtedly harm the state’s plans to reduce carbon emissions, according to Jim Norton, director of the Environmental Protection Division of the state’s environment department. If Desert Rock is built, it will also mean that reductions will have to come from elsewhere, including facilities already in use.

In October, the state of New Mexico filed an appeal after the US Environmental Protection Agency issued an air-quality permit for the facility that says Desert Rock would not have an adverse effect on a variety of air quality issues in the region. The state disagrees and has cited seven major concerns that justify the permit being reevaluated. Those include the agency’s failure to consult with the US Fish and Wildlife Service on how the plant might affect endangered species, as well as how Desert Rock would affect visibility even within nearby national parks, including Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park and the Grand Canyon.

But according to Norton, there is nothing the state can do to stop the plant or even affect its design, other than appeal decisions from federal agencies or engage in litigation against Desert Rock Energy Company.
“Because the plant is on tribal land, the state of New Mexico does not have direct authority for permitting the plant—instead that authority resides with the [EPA],” Norton says. “If it was on state jurisdiction land, we never would have permitted it.”

As for the company’s insistence that the plant will be a clean power plant, Norton says there is “no such thing.”

“The proposed Desert Rock plant is cleaner than the technology that was put in place out there, many decades ago at [the Four Corners and San Juan plants],” he says. “But that still doesn’t mean it’s clean—there is still a lot of pollution coming out of those stacks.”

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From his office at the Bracewell & Giuliani law firm—yes, that Giuliani—in Washington, DC, spokesman Frank Maisano gets fired up when asked about New Mexico’s opposition to the project.

Maisano points out that Gov. Richardson didn’t announce his opposition to the project until 2007, years into the project’s planning process—and far too late to affect the project’s design.

In July 2007, the governor announced he was “concerned” about the plant and said that Desert Rock, as proposed, would be a step in the wrong direction. According to Richardson, any new coal plants built in New Mexico should employ what’s called integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) technology.

IGCC technology allows for carbon emissions to be separated from other pollutants and placed in a separate stream, which can then be channeled underground. Rather than releasing the carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where it affects climate change, it can be captured and retained under the earth.

At the time, Richardson also said only plants that can capture at least 60 percent of carbon emissions will be eligible for state tax breaks.

“You know it really kind of bothers me—and the governor, I know, is going to be the commerce secretary, so he’s leaving New Mexico, and Attorney General [Gary] King has been an active and aggressive opponent in the last year—but for three years, the governor never mentioned one word, ‘boo’,” Maisano says. “The state didn’t take much interest in it for the first two, three years of the project, and in fact were somewhat supportive.”

Asked how the governor feels about the plant and how it might affect some of the steps the state has taken to reduce carbon emissions, the governor’s director of communications, Gilbert Gallegos, writes in an e-mail, “I don’t have anything new to say about it.”

While it may be true the state didn’t actively oppose the plant until recently, the New Mexico Legislature has not yet bowed to the company’s attempts to find tax relief for the project. In fact, for three years running, the Legislature has denied Desert Rock Energy Company’s requests for help building the plant.

It remains to be seen if a fourth attempt will be made by proponents of the project. While activists say they will watchdog lobbying attempts, Maisano casually dismisses the idea that he or others will come pound the pavement in Santa Fe.

“We don’t need anything,” he says, but then adds: “It would be great if the state Legislature would step up to the plate—like the Navajo Nation and San Juan County—to work with us to develop a tax structure that would fit the size and magnitude of the project.”

But State Sen.-elect Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe—who, as a representative, consistently opposed Desert Rock’s requests for tax relief—says no companies should be counting on economic development incentives right now.

“Now, we are in a totally different revenue situation, with a $454 million shortfall for this fiscal year, and lots of instability in the [coming] years so, from a general perspective, any of these types of tax cuts to encourage economic development are going to be looked at in a different light,” he says. “Over the last six years, Gov. Richardson has eliminated about a billion dollars from the tax base. So when we have volatility like this with oil and gas, it creates this situation we’re in now—and the Legislature as a whole is going to look with a lot more scrutiny at tax proposals coming in.”

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Even ignoring for a moment its pending appeals and litigation—and the long permitting process necessary for any project the magnitude of a coal-fired power plant—Desert Rock’s future does not appear set in stone.

Current cost estimates for the plant hover around $4 billion, up from $1.5 billion five years ago—and questions still remain about from where that money might come.

After Sithe’s primary investor, The Blackstone Group, went public last year, its stock value plummeted by 75 percent. In November, the company reported a $502.5 million loss in its third quarter. And while spokesman Maisano is optimistic the tribe will pony up between 25 and 49 percent of that cash, it remains to be seen how realistically a tribe with a 44 percent unemployment rate and a median family income of $11,885 can muster up a few billion dollars to actually build the plant—never mind the transmission line needed to actually move the electricity off the reservation. It’s possible, Hardeen says, that Navajo Nation President Shirley will again request help from the federal government.

Hardeen indicates the belief that the tribe is not being cut a fair deal from the government. He points out that three years ago, Shirley requested a $1 billion loan from the federal government. But no one took him seriously, Hardeen says. “And here we have the $700 billion [bailout] and the auto industry looking for a bailout and it’s actually happening,” he says. “The Navajo Nation and Indians have had these economic needs historically, and people seem to be thinking, ‘This is the way the Navajo want to live.’ But it’s not.”

Additionally, while no one knows yet how the Obama administration—working in partnership with a Democrat-controlled Congress—might tackle the issue of greenhouse gas emissions, major policy shifts are likely as climate change becomes a more pressing policy issue.

While US Sen. Pete Domenici, R-NM, actively supported Desert Rock, US Sen. Jeff Bingaman’s spokesperson Jude McCartin emphasizes that Bingaman cannot affect the project’s process or progress.

All he can do, she says, is enact legislative provisions to help make plants cleaner and reduce carbon emissions—something he was committed to even during the Bush administration.

According to McCartin, Bingaman is actively working to make carbon capture an economically viable option for companies seeking to build coal-fired power plants. He recently worked to pass two separate laws aimed at reducing emissions from coal-fired power plants.

The first law creates an investment tax credit for the deployment of carbon capture technology (that is, separating the carbon out and placing it in the ground.) The second law, McCartin says, offers a tax credit to companies that actively capture and use that carbon, which can be liquefied and put to other uses. “It’s more costly to do what’s right,” she says, and such incentives will level the playing field and encourage companies to use new technology.

Marissa Padilla, spokeswoman for US Sen.-elect Tom Udall, notes, in an e-mail statement, that while Desert Rock is currently bogged down in litigation, “If this project once again begins to move forward, it would be an opportunity to bring about desperately needed economic development and job creation to the Navajo Nation. However, if it does proceed, Senator-elect Udall believes the proposed power plant should be a model plant for the rest of the nation by using the most advanced, carbon reducing technologies available.”

Additionally, a recent ruling from the Environmental Protections Agency’s appeals board—the same one to which the state is appealing Desert Rock’s air quality permit—may make it harder for companies to build coal-fired power plants now and in the future.

In November, the board rejected a permit the agency had previously issued for a coal-fired power plant on the Uintah and Ouray Indian reservation in Utah, saying the EPA had failed to comply with a 2007 Supreme Court decision that requires carbon dioxide be regulated under the Clean Air Act as a pollutant. The company will now have to reevaluate its project, bearing in mind how to best control carbon emissions, and resubmit its permit application to the EPA.

Finally, even if Desert Rock jumps through the pending bureaucratic hurdles, it will still have to grapple with a wall of opposition on Navajo land.

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Navajo activist Elouise Brown has seen her life turned upside down in recent years.

In October, 2006, through a quirk of fate, she became president of Doodá Desert Rock, a group formed in resistance to the power plant. She was volunteering to help when the president of the organization—her aunt—became spooked by legal threats from proponents of the project. Nobody else within the organization wanted the president’s position, and they voted Brown in as leader. “So that’s how I got in there: People voted me in,” she says. “Everybody agreed except me, and I thought, ‘If I don’t agree to do it, who’s going to do it?”

And although the tribal council overwhelmingly voted in support of the plant—and its 67 percent tax break from the tribe—she denies that the Navajo people as a whole support the plant. “When I first got started, hardly anybody knew about the plant, so we go and talk to people and get on the local radio stations in Farmington, Window Rock and Gallup and try to announce this in Navajo. We’re telling people in Navajo, ‘Wake up people, this is what’s going on!’” she says. “People were saying to us, ‘We didn’t know about this,’ but now, quite a bit of people are aware of it, and the ones aware of it, are opposed to it.”

For two years now, she has checked in almost daily at the 580-acre construction site in Burnham, NM. She monitors activities, talks back at the employees who tell her to keep moving and, last year, snapped photos as workers performed tests for water beneath the site and allowed the water pumped from beneath the ground to rush for days through a formerly dry arroyo. She frequently posts those pictures to the group’s blog or sends them along to the state’s newspaper reporters. She also helps organize a protest camp, which Navajo activists and elders have occupied for more than two years. The protest began in December 2006 when Brown and others realized the company was getting ready to begin preliminary work at the site of the plant. Protestors set up a blockade, preventing company employees from entering the area. They continue to occupy the site and, today, Brown still brings state officials, elected representatives and others out to the site—to hear from the “grandmas” why those who live near the site are willing to camp out, in the heat and cold, rain and snow, to oppose the plant.

And while she has witnessed poverty as stark as any across the reservation, she says that the promise of economic development from the tribal government is an empty one, particularly when weighed against the health of the Navajo people and the fate of the planet.

She also dismisses Maisano’s claim that it is just a “vocal minority” opposed to the coal plant. “I know that a lot of people are opposed, I talk to them and visit them at their home,” she says. “When we went to the public hearings for the draft [environmental-impact statement] I never—not once—did I hear someone who was for the power plant, except for those people who were going to build it, the people from Sithe Global and the Diné Power Authority.”

For his part, environmental activist Mike Eisenfeld has learned in the past few years that the old-style energy industry isn’t as unshakable as it once was. Communities opposed to polluting industries can, in fact, go head-to-head against large corporations—and presidential administrations bent on drilling for oil, burning coal and exploiting every last bit of fossil fuel energy.

“Four years ago, when I first started working on Desert Rock, the proponents laughed in my face and said, ‘There are no opponents up here, this is a done deal, and nobody is going to get in our way—construction is going to start in 2006,’” Eisenfeld says. “But here we are in 2008, on the cusp of 2009, and I think the whole game has shifted.”  SFR