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?