July 27, 2007
The Energy Challenge
 Navajos and Environmentalists Split on Power Plant  By FELICITY

BURNHAM, N.M.  For the Navajo nation, energy is the most valuable currency.
The tribal lands are rich with uranium, natural gas, wind, sun and, most of
all, coal.

But two coal-fired power plants here, including one on the reservation,
belch noxious fumes, making the air among the worst in the state. Now the
tribe is moving forward with plans for a bigger plant, Desert Rock, that
Navajo authorities hope will bring in $50 million a year in taxes, royalties
and other income by selling power to Phoenix and Las Vegas.

The plan has stirred opposition from some Navajos who regard the $3 billion
proposal as a lethal "energy monster" that desecrates Father Sky and Mother
Earth and from environmental groups that fear global
from its carbon dioxide emissions.

New Mexico<>,
which has no authority over the tribal lands, has also expressed misgivings
and has refused to grant the plant tax breaks.

The struggle is a homegrown version of the global debate on slowing climate

Developed countries are trying to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, the
most ubiquitous gas usually linked to climate change, and argue that rapidly
growing nations like India and China should avoid building coal-fired power
plants. The critics' targets say it is unfair to keep them from powering
their way to prosperity with cheap and abundant coal.

The Navajo president, Joe Shirley Jr., said his tribe felt similar pressure.
Mr. Shirley said the plant here would mean hundreds of jobs, higher incomes
and better lives for some of the 200,000 people on the reservation. The
tribe derives little direct financial benefit from the operation of the
existing coal-fired plants and it has not yet invested heavily in casinos.

"Why pick on the little Navajo nation, when it's trying to help itself?" he

The Sierra Club<>and
the Natural
Resources Defense
teaming with local groups like the San Juan Citizens' Alliance, point to
environmental shortcomings in the federal government's tentative blessing of
the plant, as laid out in a 1,600-page draft environmental impact statement
and an analysis by the Bureau of Indian

The staff of Gov. Bill
a Democratic presidential aspirant, recently issued a statement saying that
the plant "would be a significant new source of greenhouse gases and other
pollution in the region" and that Mr. Richardson "believes, as planned, it
would be a step in the wrong direction," undoing his proposed reductions in

In 2003, the Navajo invited Sithe Global Power, a merchant power company
based in New York, to build the $3 billion 1,500-megawatt plant with the
Navajo-owned Dine (pronounced dee-NAY) Power Authority.

In most respects, the plant would be relatively clean, with emissions of
mercury, soot and smog-forming pollutants lower than most such operations.
But each year, it would emit 12 million tons of carbon dioxide, the
equivalent of adding 1.5 million average cars to the roads.

Coal-fired electricity contributes more than half of the 57 million tons of
annual carbon-dioxide emissions in New Mexico. Together, the two existing
plants emit 29 million tons.

Tom Johns, a vice president of Sithe Global Power, said he, too, was
concerned about climate change. Desert Rock, Mr. Johns said, would be part
of the solution.

"Carbon is emitted when we use energy," Mr. Johns said. "By not building one
plant but another or by using older inefficient plants instead of new ones,
we don't solve the problem. The solution to carbon issues is to be more
efficient in how we use energy."

Worries about pollution from a new plant build on lingering concerns about
the ill effects of previous energy exploitation on the tribal lands. Navajos
have been sickened and killed by uranium tailings, leading the tribal
government to ban uranium mining.
has led New Mexico to warn children and pregnant women against
eating large carp and catfish from much of the San Juan River, which passes
through the northeastern end of the 26,600-square-mile reservation. And the
ozone levels in San Juan County, which includes the eastern part of the
reservation, have exceeded suggested new federal standards.

Elouise Brown, a Navajo whose family is from the area around the proposed
plant, has led a group called Dooda (pronounced dough-DAH) Desert Rock,
Navajo for "No to Desert Rock," in a seven-month protest at the site.

The tribal council voted overwhelmingly to back the project, but Navajos are
divided, with each side claiming to speak for the majority.

"It's not just that it's so close to my house or my family," Ms. Brown said.
"It's the pollution and what the impacts are going to be from the pollution
to all the people that live there. Not only the people that live there, but
it adds to global warming. So it's going to be a worldwide issue."

The fight, in one of the emptiest regions, echoes in many respects the
debates over the more than 100 proposals to build coal-fired power plants.

Organizations like Environmental Defense and the Natural Resources Defense
Council have the equivalent of strike forces criticizing proposed plants.
They recently won a victory in Florida, where regulators rejected two

A major Texas utility, TXU, was bought by a financial group that agreed to
scrap 8 of its 11 proposed coal-fired plants.

The Desert Rock fight is complicated by the status of the Navajos as a
sovereign nation within a nation. Although some federal approvals are
required for the project to proceed, no state regulators can tell the tribe
what to do. Even with their divisions, the Navajos are thinking big about
the possibilities. The tribal council is trying to find banks to lend it up
to $750 million to buy a 25 percent ownership stake.

The council also plans a transmission line to carry electricity from Desert
Rock and, perhaps, future wind farms.

The arrangement would be lucrative for the struggling tribe, which earns
$102 million a year, much of it from selling coal and other minerals, and
$400 million or so in government grants. The new power line might help send
electricity to 20,000 remote houses  one-third of the residences on the
reservation  that lack it.

Local opponents, like Mike Eisenfeld of the San Juan group, are more
concerned about potential health and environmental costs.

"Your conclusion when you read the federal environmental impact statement is
things are so bad already that you won't even notice another power plant,"
Mr. Eisenfeld said.

Some backers of the plant hope that Desert Rock could be a proving ground
for an experimental technology to reduce carbon emissions by capturing them
and injecting them deep in the ground.

Mr. Johns of Sithe Global Power and Senator Jeff Bingaman, the New Mexico
Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, expressed hope that
the carbon-capture technology could be incorporated into the plant with an
additional $1 billion investment.

The Senate Finance Committee approved a measure for a production tax credit
of $20 a ton for sequestered carbon dioxide, and Mr. Bingaman said he was
looking for bill to attach it as an amendment.

Mr. Shirley, the Navajo president, said he hoped that the plant would be
running by 2012. That may be optimistic. The plans are subject to final
approval not only by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but also from at least
three other federal agencies. If they come, lawsuits are a good possibility.


Michael Balter
Contributing Correspondent, Science
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