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Navajo Nation President Halts NTEC Purchase Of Coal Plants

Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

LAUREN GILGER: Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez announced this week he is pulling the plug on the Navajo Transitional Energy Company or end tax controversial purchases of three bankrupt coal mines in Wyoming and Montana last month. NTEC is a for-profit company that was created by the tribal government in 2013, and it made the move just as many thought the Navajo Nation was moving away from coal. The Navajo Generating Station and the Kayenta Mine are in the process of closing as we speak. In a statement, Nez said the Navajo Nation's finances would be left uncertain if the agreement was maintained while NTEC expanded, "interests in a coal market that appears to be dwindling." The agreement creating NTEC required the company to invest in renewables. And Nez added, "We will not support initiatives that attempt to circumvent or undermine the laws and policies of our nation." Carol Davis is the coordinator of Diné C.A.R.E., one of the community groups that advocated for the termination of the NTEC agreement. I spoke with her yesterday about the president's decision and what it means for her community.

CAROL DAVIS: Our primary concern is that this purchase and then moving forward with the indemnity agreement would saddle the Navajo Nation with — we don't even know the amount — we're being told maybe $1 billion worth of future liabilities. And that's crazy because we can't afford that. It's not something that the Navajo — it's not a risk that the Navajo people can take.

GILGER: How would that debt have been have come about? What what do you mean by that?

DAVIS: Reclamation costs. And if they didn't make their profits, you know, any agreements that that would have been in place. But the main part would have been that we feel like there's unknown amounts of reclamation costs that will be involved, and we won't have the funding to cover that. We just feel like we can't afford that kind of unknown debt.

GILGER: So I know your organization also has been advocating for a move toward a renewable energy future for the Navajo Nation, right? I wonder if you think this moves you in the right direction, if this is something that you're happy to see happen?

DAVIS: Yes, it is. We are. We're hoping that we can really, fully embrace really looking at some other renewable energy opportunities that could be out there. And we've just wasted so much time with this NTEC issue that I feel like even the Nation has has fallen behind in trying to catch up to renewable energy economy.

GILGER: So we spoke with someone from NTEC on The Show after this purchase of these bankrupt coal mines was announced, and their representative insisted that their required investment in renewables was accomplished through community programs that they that they have put forward. And he really argued that their money was made from selling coal.

NTEC REPRESENTATIVE: You know, once the markets begin to level out and we look to the future, coal is going to be a part of that future. Whether people liked it or not, that's just the reality.

DAVIS: I don't think that's true. I think there's a lot of opportunities. But I feel like we're seeing that they're just really invested in this coal, which a lot of the Navajo people are against it. We really don't understand why they think that this is going to make money, because all the data, all the statistics that are out there — they've just ignored all of that. And we just have no idea why or how they could possibly believe that they could make money.

GILGER: Where do you think this number of jobs will come from? The coal industry has been a really large source of jobs and an economic driver on the Navajo Nation for a very long time. Do you think that there's anywhere else you can get that number of jobs without coal?

DAVIS: Honestly, I don't really understand how they could be creating jobs for Navajo people, if that's what they're implying. I mean, they might be creating jobs for the general public, but I don't really see how it could possibly benefit even in the thousands or even in the hundreds of Navajo people. ... The way I understand it, a lot of the people that are going to be without jobs now, they don't want to be traveling somewhere far. And the ones who do want to have already made those arrangements and they've already transition to new positions. So I don't think I've had anybody explain to me how they think that they're going to be creating jobs for Navajo people in Montana and Wyoming.

GILGER: You, you and others have emphasized that there is a cultural, almost a spiritual aspect to this, right? Like a return to traditional Diné law. What do you mean by that?

DAVIS: We have what's called Diné Fundamental Law. And that's actually something that's been drafted. And it's in the Navajo Nation regulations. It's tenets that prescribe a set of values, and they're values based on our traditions, our ceremonies, customs. And we feel like the way that NTEC has been dealing with Navajo Nation, it's failing at it at every at every possible opportunity.

GILGER: Is there a cultural aspect in terms of the Navajo's respect for and appreciation and connection to the land?

DAVIS: Yes. And that is one of the basis of Diné Fundamental Law. That our policies, our laws, whatever we do — we always have to have that mindfulness about having respect for nature and to understand that if we take, we have to give back. And we treat our environment like it has living soul almost, where we we also have offerings, where we have ceremonies, where we give thanks to the elements for providing us with sustenance. And those are just part of our traditions, our customs. And so it's just we see it as a violation to this mother earth that we have when we're just constantly reaping all kinds of energy, extractive resources. And it's just we're not giving anything back. We're not giving her a chance to heal. And that's all part of the tenants of Diné Fundamental Law: that if you take, you've got to restore. You've got to create a sustainable or even a regenerative environment, a regenerative economy. ... You don't just take, take, take. You have to give back. And some of that is even giving time for healing.

GILGER: All right. That is Carol Davis, co-ordinator of Diné C.A.R.E., one of the organizations pushing for equitable transition toward renewable energy on the Navajo Nation. Carol, thank you so much for joining us.

DAVIS: Thank you.

GILGER: We also reached out to a representative of NTEC, who sent us a statement saying it respects the decision of the Navajo Nation, but an attack remains a "profitable, viable and successful business entity of the Navajo Nation." And as such, NTEC says it will explore its options going forward to best serve both its own interests and those of the Navajo Nation.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.