Q&A: Obama’s Climate Plan Could Ease Path to Clean Energy On Tribal Lands

Q&A: Obama’s Climate Plan Could Ease Path to Clean Energy On Tribal Lands

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Above: The Navajo Generating System / photo: Joshua Jovanelly, Gila River Indian News 

Editor’s note: President Obama unveiled a national plan to tackle climate change earlier this week, using his executive powers to bypass Congress, which had been gridlocked on measures to address the problem. The plan, for the first time, calls for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set limits on carbon emissions from new and old power plants, which make up about a third of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. Coal-powered plants are the heaviest emitters of carbon pollution, and on tribal lands in Arizona, Native Americans have been pushing to transition their tribal economies away from coal and toward renewable energy. NAM’s Ngoc Nguyen spoke with Wahleah Johns, who co-directs the grassroots Black Mesa Water Coalition, on what lessons their work has for a national shift toward cleaner and renewable energy.

New America Media: How does Obama’s plan affect the work you are doing to transition away from coal power on tribal lands?

Wahleah Johns: [Obama] is pushing for renewable energy standards for the federal government. That’s great, since the majority owner of the Navajo Generating Station (NGS) is the federal government. They should start to implement this Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard… in an effort to reduce carbon pollution, nox (nitrogen oxide) pollution, smog -- everything that comes out of these power plants.

They should start with the projects like the coal plants that they own. The Bureau of Reclamation, under [the] Department of Interior, owns 24.3 percent [of NGS]. They should start implementing renewable energy [there] as a way to reduce pollution.

NAM: How would Obama’s plan affect the long-term viability of coal at the Navajo Generating Station, specifically?

WJ: The main issue they are facing is regulation from the Clean Air Act. [And now], over the next 10 years, they [will] have to comply with the ruling made by the EPA. Installing BART (Best Available Retrofit Technology), [such as] SCR (Selective Catalytic Reduction), could cost over a billion dollars.

California and Nevada already have laws that push renewable energy. It’s a perfect opportunity for our tribal nation to invest in renewable energy development that can be economically viable, diversify our economy, and not rely on one coal plant. If we start now and have a say in the design…our communities could have co-ownership in these projects.

One of our main [objectives] in the work that we do (at the Black Mesa Project) is to create a hybrid plant that can use both coal and natural gas, and renewable -- wind or solar -- and be able to provide electricity to the existing transmission [lines] that go through the Navajo Nation.

NAM: When you push for diversifying their fuel source to include renewable energy, what does NGS say?

WJ: They say that it’s not even a topic a discussion they want to get into. They say there’s not enough land, it’s not “base load” energy (the amount of power required to meet minimum customer demands).

[But] it has to be done at some point. Since the federal government is the majority owner [of NGS], they need to take more leadership, like Obama is saying. NGS is one of the dirtiest coal plants in the West.

NAM: Obama’s plan does call on the Dept. of Interior to invest in large-scale solar and wind projects that could benefit tribal groups, right?

WJ: I really feel that as people …working towards a just transition to renewable energy and diversifying our economy, we really need to have more leadership and a say in the design -- how it will benefit local communities, so there is something coming back for our people, so we don’t have big companies coming in and doing a big solar farm without any community benefit.

NAM: The President didn’t mention the controversial Keystone XL pipeline in his speech to announce his plan, but he’s called for an “all-of-the-above” approach to energy policy. Is that at odds with his plan to tackle climate change?

WJ: I don’t think nuclear is clean energy. I don’t think natural gas is a clean energy…

What the federal government doesn’t understand [is that] for the past 50-100 years, extractive industries [have depleted] resources. What someone needs to assess is damage on watersheds and aquifers, the fact that communities can never go back to their original homelands to live, and the damages to health.

Some tribal members from North Dakota told us about the process of fracking for natural gas. It doesn’t sound like clean energy to me, when you take into account extracting raw material, refining, polluting communities, everyone having cancer… Doesn’t sound clean to me.

Pushing renewable energy like wind and solar -- clean tech -- is the way. Energy efficiency. If people just weatherized their homes, it would make a difference. It’s not just one thing that is going to make it all right. The way our society is today, it is going to take an unlearning of the way things have been done in the United States.

NAM: Some environmentalists say Obama’s plan lacks urgency in addressing the climate crisis. What do you say – does it fall short?

WJ: When you talk about climate change, it’s been impacting communities, not only in the form of heat waves. It’s more about the whole process of extracting resources that has been devastating indigenous, low income communities. Pacific Islanders are feeling the brunt of it.

Yes, [Obama’s plan] falls short, by our standards, as communities affected by extractive industries -- abuse on our aquifers, our health and children’s health, the friction it’s caused within tribal nations. [Coal has been] a dependency for our [Navajo] Nation. We need to push renewable energy policies.