The national transition away from coal is creating a range of negative impacts on the places that have hosted coal plants or coal mines. Often, these impacts are layered onto existing economic distress, a legacy of disinvestment, and deep-rooted inequities. The Navajo Nation has experienced this dynamic for generations. The Navajo Generating Station’s closure in 2019 has already deepened economic pain in some of the country’s most disadvantaged communities, many of which lack essential infrastructure, and future closures will add to it. Nonetheless, recent victories—including a groundbreaking settlement with the Arizona Public Service in response to coal plant closures—and local solutions promise to enable these communities to achieve their vision of sustainable prosperity.
Nicole Horseherder, executive director of Tó Nizhóní Ání, has been a leading advocate to ensure a just transition for Navajo communities. The Just Transition Fund’s Max Shipman recently talked to Nicole about what coal transition means for the Navajo Nation, her role in the settlement with the Arizona Public Service, and more. Their conversation, edited for length and clarity, is reproduced below. You can learn more about Tó Nizhóní Ání on its website.
Max Shipman: Thanks for talking with me today, Nicole. In 2019 the Navajo Generating Station closed for good, and the Four Corners Power Plant is scheduled to close by 2031. From your perspective, what do these closures mean for Navajo communities?
Nicole Horseherder: In short, it’s an opportunity to transition the Navajo Nation’s economy. The Navajo Nation’s economy has been really dependent on the fossil fuel industry and is impacted by the United States’ economy. All of the outside, extractive companies are either American companies or Australian companies or British companies—they’re all non-Native companies. So they come here to the Navajo Nation and sell their business the way they do everywhere else. I think the big difference is that they deal with Indigenous people like they deal with third-world countries. They put more pressure on the Indigenous people into selling their resources for a cheaper price or accepting lower royalty rates. There are ways in which they can create contracts and negotiate things more in their favor. And they have. So at this moment, we have an opportunity to carry ourselves out—out of that pattern where we are constantly getting into contracts that are not always beneficial to us.
Max: When coal plants close, communities are often left with a lot of economic and environmental challenges. What challenges are Navajo communities experiencing after these closures?
Nicole: The environmental impacts are tremendous. We’re also feeling the economic impacts. We have a high unemployment rate, we have a large percentage of our people still living without indoor plumbing and electricity—basic things like that. Black Mesa’s no exception. We’ve had tremendous environmental impacts, because we’re people who still live off the land and still use the land in many of the ways that our ancestors did: farming and hunting, ranching and gathering foods, medicines and tobaccos and others. We are dry farmers and rely on the monsoons. The health of the environment is critical to our livelihood here, and the availability of water is just as critical. And those are the things that the coal industry has really impacted.
And we face other challenges. With infrastructure, we don’t have improved roads to our homes, we can’t just get our mail in the mailbox outside our house. We don’t have the right to choose the type of energy we are getting. We’re relying on one tribal utility company, and they’re not the most effective and efficient entity to get our power from. We’ve faced all kinds of challenges. And really, people talk about third-world countries—our economic situation is very similar to these third-world countries, by American standards.
There’s a lot of beauty and a lot of peace and a lot of happiness here, as well. I’m not trying to say that it’s absolutely miserable here. I’m just trying to say we’ve given up a lot for this type of industry. We’ve given up both groundwater and surface water so the NGS-KMS complex could operate. We’ve agreed to sell our coal at a low price. We hadn’t collected taxes on the operation until the mid-80’s when the Feds agreed to let us. The Nation helped subsidize these operations so they could profit, so they could deliver cheap power and electricity and water to whoever it is they intended to deliver it to—certainly not us.
Max: I know you’re doing a lot to rectify some of those challenges. This past fall, the Arizona Public Service (APS)—which closed the Navajo Generating Station and the Four Corners Power Plant—committed $127 million to the Navajo Nation over 10 years to help address the plant closures. What role did you and Tó Nizhóní Ání have in this process?
Nicole: We started out as intervenors in the Four Corners rate case. We worked on a number of different strategies to help bring attention to a just and equitable transition. This is the premise of our involvement as intervenors. We wanted to say that if APS is looking to recover money spent on pollution control for Four Corners, that some of these funds needed to be committed to the Navajo Nation for just and equitable transition. They could not just recover money and not use some of it to help coal impacted communities that propped them up for so long. Along the way, APS invited us to have discussions with them away from the rate case. Among other things, they wanted to talk about just transition. They wanted to get a better sense of what our goal was for just transition on the Navajo Nation.
So we were able to have this dialogue with them, and I think they came away with a better understanding of what our goals are. I certainly think that’s what led to the APS offer, because the offer is outside of the rate case. But while we were careful not to talk about the things in the rate case, we were talking about what just transition meant to us. And so they were trying to get a little bit more information from us that they probably wouldn’t have been able to get just by listening to testimony. But at some point, they did come back and make this offer.
Of course, the entity that really has the authority to agree to it is the Navajo Nation. And that happens through Navajo President Jonathan Nez. But you know, it’s organizations such as ours that really helped lay out what some of the needs are—what the needs of the coal-impacted communities and the government are. And at the top of that list is funding for transition efforts, whatever that may be, and however the Nation’s government felt like was the direction that they wanted to go.
I started out writing a letter to APS about this offer and asked others to join me and had people help me edit the letter. But after APS came forward with their initial offer, we said, “you really could do more than what you’re offering. $100 million over 10 years—you could have done better than that. You have the ability and the resources to do better than that.” But nevertheless, we will support whatever position President Nez takes. We knew the President would support this offer, and we said we’d support him on that.
The other really important thing is we made it clear to them that when these coal plants go down, that closure happens and it’s final. It’s important that these utilities don’t see a situation in which someone else can acquire the plants they’re about to exit. And that’s a really important piece of transition. It’s not a just transition if you allow another company to come in, buy the plant, and continue running the plant another five years after you decide to leave it. That’s not transition, that’s not closure—that’s just dumping your assets on someone else so the pollution can continue. And that’s really putting at risk the new owner’s ability to reclaim and clean up after they decide the plant is no longer viable. So that was the other really important message that we had for APS. As they’re about ready to exit the Four Corners Power Plant, it’s absolutely important that when they decide to shut it down, it will shut down. They’re not going to entertain other buyers, and they will close it.
Max: A major part of the transition away from coal is communities coming together to decide what kind of economy they want to build. Could you talk more about the vision Navajo communities have?
Nicole: A lot of the Navajo communities may not understand what kinds of opportunities are available to them, especially opportunities that don’t include some type of fossil fuel. For the longest time, industry and the federal government—like the Department of Interior—have had a hand in this by pushing this type of industry onto our people, onto our government, and really capitalizing on the mineral resources that are here. The federal government has helped broker deals between the Navajo Nation and these companies that come in and want to extract.
The Navajo Nation’s government is having a hard time seeing opportunities aside from that. They think that if we’re going to make some money and bring prosperity to our people, we have to dig something up and burn it. That mindset has become so deeply embedded in the Nation today, that it’s taken this long to try to get us out of that way of thinking. It’s a challenge. So that’s something that we have to get through.
The other thing that communities need is more autonomy—more authority over their boundaries and the resources within those boundaries. That’s what’s needed in order to plan things. For the longest time, we’ve always had the Department of Interior and other federal agencies come and tell us what’s good for us. Hence all these companies coming in for the oil and the gas and the uranium and the coal. I think we’re going to have to get used to deciding for ourselves what’s best for ourselves. The agencies aren’t used to thinking that way yet. Indigenous grassroots organizations, such as ours, have been saying this is the way things should be and this is the direction we should go, and let’s not invest in this any more because look at the markets declining. We’re the ones that have been saying that all this time. And our tribal government has not wanted to listen to us. They want to listen to the coal companies and the oil companies, and they want to get their advice and direction from them. And I think they understand at this point there’s a lot of truth to the things that we’re saying.
And one thing that’s lacking above all of this is the Nation’s priorities. The Navajo Nation and Dine Nation should be saying water is of utmost priority—that it’s at the top of the list, we want to protect it, we want to preserve it, we want to ensure that it’s clean and available for future generations. Just lay that priority out, and everything else is going to fall into place. If water’s the priority, we’re going to see sustainable projects that use little to no water. We’re going to pursue solar and wind energy more aggressively, knowing that’s the type of energy we need to generate if we want to continue to protect our water sources and be able to use those water sources that are now available after plants like NGS shut down. That’s how I envision the transition should go, and I think there’s confusion as to where to start with this. I think that’s the starting point right there. That’s going to help make development clearer and planning clearer and it’s going to help establish some real limits and it’s going to really provide some direction as to which way the Nation should go in its transition.
Max: Based on your experiences, what would you tell other communities facing transition?
Nicole: I would tell other coal communities that there’s nothing that can replace those life-giving resources the creator has given. Nothing can replace them. And when those things are damaged, then essentially you do to yourself what you do to the environment. So if you destroy your water and your land and the air you breathe, then you’re setting yourself up for a life of sickness and misery. In other words, those things are worth fighting for. And they’re worth more than any company could ever promise you. If they promise to bring you wealth and prosperity, nothing can bring that if your water is polluted. And no company can bring that if the air you breathe is toxic. It’s as simple as that. There are many things that corporations and companies promise to communities, and communities have to be absolutely careful about how these corporations come in and do business.
The other thing is if you’re entering into contracts with these corporations, you have to look at everything from the very beginning to the very end. The mistake we made here on Navajo is that we looked at these operations giving the land they need to operate and the resources they need, and then we never thought about the day these operations would end and go away, and the cleanup that would be needed afterwards. So we didn’t plan or prepare afterward for cleanup. We didn’t ensure that these contracts laid out explicit language that these companies would have to clean up everything before they leave, and would have to ensure that the cleanup would happen adequately and completely. And that’s something that has to be in every contract going forward. These companies can no longer just close up shop and leave—they’ve got to clean up and dispose of the waste before they go. That’s the advice I would give to communities that are navigating this.
Max: Thank you, Nicole, for those inspiring and practical words of wisdom. This has been a great conversation.