Opinion

Support From Congress Shows High Stakes of Coal Plant for Tribes and Economies

Comprehensive energy legislation has not been at the top of Congress’ agenda throughout the first years of the Trump presidency. Amid landmark passage of big-ticket items like tax reform, progress on energy issues has been largely limited to the regulatory and executive actions to help create a more level playing field for one of our nation’s most critical job creators.

The lack of sweeping energy legislation, however, doesn’t indicate a lack of interest on the part of Congress – or a failure to recognize what’s at stake on an evolving energy and economic landscape.

An April 12 hearing by the House Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources demonstrated the importance of Congressional engagement in the energy debate happening across the nation and especially in the Southwest, where the looming closure of the Navajo Generating Station threatens the region’s power grid, power rates and economy.

The Navajo Generating Station utilizes local, Arizona coal from the Kayenta Mine to provide reliable power and affordable water to consumers across the Southwest. It generates the power used by the Central Arizona Project to pump Colorado River water south through the desert and uses its onsite coal supply to ensure that, even in the face of a natural disaster or similar disruption, the lights stay on in Arizona.

The Navajo Generating Station also plays a crucial economic role – especially for Native Americans. The plant and the coal mine that serves as its fuel source support over 825 direct jobs, and almost every one of those jobs is held by a member of a tribal community. In addition, there are thousands of additional support jobs. If the Navajo Generating Station closes, the Navajo Nation and neighboring Hopi Tribe will lose jobs, tax revenue and one of the most significant sources of opportunity and economic identity in their communities.

Labor advocates, elected officials, tribal leaders, financial consultants, energy analysts and many other stakeholders have been working together to support the effort to find new owners for the Navajo Generating Station since the potential closure was announced last year. The Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee hearing gave an important voice to these stakeholders and also showed additional support from the federal government.

As a partial owner of the Navajo Generating Station through the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Department of the Interior has firsthand knowledge of the importance of the plant to the region’s economic and energy future and the role that the sale of the plant’s surplus power plays in enabling the Central Arizona Project to pay down the $1 billion it still owes to taxpayers and the federal government.

As witness testimony demonstrated during the hearing, the body of evidence that supports keeping the plant in service beyond 2019 is significant. Studies from respected research and analysis firms like Quanta Technology LLC and Energy Ventures Analysis Inc. paint a clear picture of the negative impacts of closure: increased power costs, increased water rates and grid reliability concerns. Taken alongside the economic costs of closure to the Navajo and Hopi communities, the arguments in support of keeping the plant operational are compelling.

Congress may not be on the cusp of passing a sweeping energy policy overhaul this session, but hearings like the one hosted by the subcommittee — and visible support from lawmakers — play a crucial role in urging along the process of securing new owners for this critical piece of America’s energy system. As supporters inside and outside of government continue to speak out, the Navajo Generating Station’s prospects will only grow stronger.

 

Darren Bearson, the president of Compass Point Strategies, worked in the White House’s Office of Political Affairs under President George W. Bush from 2001-2005 and has advised Republican candidates in more than 30 states over the past 20 years.

Morning Consult welcomes op-ed submissions on policy, politics and business strategy in our coverage areas. Updated submission guidelines can be found here.

A previous version of this op-ed misstated the date of the hearing by the House Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.