On the last day of 2005, the Mohave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nevada, powered down. The closure forced northern Arizona’s Black Mesa Coal Mine to halt operations—its sole customer was the Mohave plant. As went the station and the mine, so went the pipeline that carried a slurry of water and Black Mesa coal 273 miles from the mine to the power plant, where it was dried and burned to create electricity for Las Vegas and Southern California. They fell, one after the other, “like three big dominoes,” says Andy Bessler, of the Sierra Club’s Partnerships program. On the first day of 2006, a system that had existed for more than 30 years, that had obscured views of the Grand Canyon with air pollution and drawn down the Navajo aquifer, was brought to a standstill.
Since the Black Mesa Mine was on Hopi Tribe and Navajo Nation lands, its closure was a blow to their economies. But a plan is in the works to shift those economies in a more sustainable direction. The “Just Transition Plan” will bring the tribes millions of dollars each year for investment in renewable development on tribal lands—millions of dollars, organizers hope, that will come from the owners of the Mohave Generating Station.
In 1998, the Sierra Club, with the Grand Canyon Trust and the National Parks Conservation Association, filed a Clean Air Act lawsuit to force Mohave to install pollution controls. According to the EPA, the plant emitted up to 40,000 tons of sulfur dioxide each year, making it the dirtiest coal-fired power plant in the West. In 1999, Mohave’s owners agreed to either upgrade the plant by December 31, 2005, or shut it down. Six years later, the owners closed the plant rather than pay for improvements. And this amounted to a victory, of sorts, for environmentalists.
But for the Hopi and Navajo, the story is more complicated. Peabody Western Coal Co., a subsidiary of Peabody Energy, the world’s largest coal company, shut the mine when it lost its only customer, and almost 200 workers related to the mine, many of them tribal members, lost their jobs. But for some Navajo and Hopi, the closure was a victory—environmental groups and tribal grassroots activists opposed the mine because of its thirst for the arid region’s most precious resource: fresh water. And it had been consuming 1.3 billion gallons of that fresh water from the Navajo aquifer each year in order to create the coal slurry.
Nicole Horseherder, a Navajo who works with the coalition, says the damage to her community from the mine has been tremendous, and, she fears, irreversible. She is unique among the many people working for Just Transition because she lives and works in the areas directly affected by the mine. She understands the importance—and scarcity—of water firsthand: her family lives 20 miles south of the mine, with no running water and about an hour from the nearest community well.
With the Mohave victory, Andy Bessler says, environmental groups like the Sierra Club could “just walk away and high-five each other.” But because of the link between the Mohave closure and the lost jobs, “that’s not responsible to the tribes we’re trying to support and help.” So in 2005, the Sierra Club began developing the Just Transition Plan with a coalition that includes the Black Mesa Trust, the Black Mesa Water Coalition, Indigenous Environmental Network, To’ Nizhoni Ani, NRDC, Honor the Earth Foundation, Apollo Alliance, and the Grand Canyon Trust. The plan calls for establishing a renewable energy infrastructure of solar and wind operations that would be partially owned by tribal communities. It would provide electricity to the tribes—Bessler says that many Navajo and Hopi have no electricity, yet have “these huge power lines crisscrossing [over] their homes”—as well as income from electricity sold to former Mohave customers. And it would be an opportunity to retrain and employ tribal members who lost their mining jobs.
|Working For a Just Transition: In January 2006, coalition members petitioned the California Public Utilities Commission to direct funding from pollution credits to their plan for renewable energy on Hopi and Navajo lands. Members include, from left to right, Marshall Johnson and daughter of To' Nizhoni Ani, Roger Clark of Grand Canyon Trust, Wahleah Johns of Black Mesa Water Coalition, Enei Begaye of Indigenous Environmental Network, Robert Tohe of the Sierra Club's Environmental Justice Program, Leonard Selestewa of Black Mesa Trust, Nicole Horseherder of To' Nizohni Ani, and Andy Bessler of the Sierra Club's Partnership Program. Photo by Sara Steck Myers.
The money for this plan would come from the sale of sulfur dioxide allowances—pollution credits—granted to Mohave’s owners since their now-shuttered plant is no longer producing pollution.
The majority owner of Mohave, at 56 percent, is the Southern California Edison (SCE) power company. In January, the Just Transition Coalition filed a motion with the California Public Utilities Commission requesting the creation of an escrow account to hold SCE’s sulfur allowance earnings, earnings the coalitions hopes will fund the plan. The coalition calculates that Mohave’s owners stand to earn up to $65 million per year from these sales; SCE’s share would be 56 percent of that. While Bessler says the Sierra Club does not support pollution trading, he notes that SCE is cashing in these allowances, anyway, “and if they’re going to be used to create renewable energy, that’s good.” The plan requests that the allowance program be retired in 2026, when Mohave would likely have shut down.
In May, the commission ruled that just such an account must be created, but it has not ruled on where that money will go. Meanwhile, SCE has until January 1, 2007, to propose its own plan on how those funds should be spent. Says Bessler: “They’ll probably want to give it to their shareholders.” If that turns out to be the case, the coalition will intervene and ask the commission to rule for the Just Transition Plan, anyway.
In the meantime, the Just Transition Coalition is planning a summit in December to bring together tribal leaders and energy and business investors. Members are also drumming up more support for the plan in local communities. Nicole Horseherder, for example, has been educating her fellow Navajo about the effects of the mine and the benefits of the Just Transition. Most of the people she encounters speak only Navajo, and she has had to explain the details of complicated issues and concepts in a language in which, she explains, there is no word-for-word translation. At this local level, the Just Transition has a great deal of support—it turns out that resistance has come mainly from tribal attorneys, who have been in closed-door negotiations with Peabody and SCE on re-opening the coal mine. But with SCE’s June announcement that it will not reactivate the Mohave station, those meetings may have been in vain—and the Just Transition appears to be the best viable option.
“We’ve been running so fast chasing the American Dream because that’s what the rest of the world tells us that we want and need,” says Horseherder. “But we’ve run into this wall. Do we go left and continue developing at the cost of ruining our environment? Or do we go right and start making decisions that will have the least adverse impact?”
The tribes are at a crossroads, and choosing Just Transition may require a shift in thinking. “We were told,” she says, “’There’s nothing wrong with selling the land, nothing wrong with selling the water.’…We were told, ‘When land just sits there, that’s wrong. You have to take it, modify it.’” To Horseherder, the Just Transition Plan runs counter to that sensibility, and she deems that ironic, because it would bring her culture back to its traditional philosophy of living, before the prevailing philosophy was that natural resources like coal or water are merely commodities. So she continues her education and outreach efforts, which include a kind of unlearning of those ideas about commerce, industry, and consumption that have dominated for decades, and Just Transition’s concept of sustainability seems to have come full circle. While the final decision on funding is still in the air, Horseherder is optimistic that the Just Transition will happen. “Am I positive? Yeah. I’ve never felt so much hope over something in all my life. Yeah.”
For more on the Just Transition, see the Sierra Club Environmental Partnerships Program's tribal partnerships page.