The Coal Industry
The coal-industry downturn shows no signs of letting up. Coal use in the United States fell 21 percent between 2007 and 2014. Coal accounted for 37 percent of the country’s electricity in February 2015—down from 50 percent in 2007—according to the Energy Information Administration. More than one-third of the nation’s coal plants have already closed or announced closures. Most are expected by 2020, when the EPA’s proposal to cut carbon-dioxide emissions could go into effect.
The industry is struggling to cut costs in the face of natural gas made cheaper by the fracking boom and low prices for thermal coal burned in power plants and metallurgical coal used to make steel. Meanwhile, communities and power companies throughout the United States are avoiding long-term spending on coal because of financial risks, pollution impacts, environmental regulations and renewable-energy options that are becoming cheaper.
Tough Times for Peabody Energy
In June 2015, Peabody Energy, the world’s largest privately owned coal company, announced 250 corporate and regional employee layoffs and said it would cut production at an Australian metallurgical coal mine by about half. That coal has been exported to China and India. Peabody’s shares have dropped 81 percent over the last year. As of March 31, Peabody had $6.4 billion in debt. The multinational corporation recorded a $787-million loss last year on revenue of $6.8 billion.
In 2014, Peabody won a bid for a 640-acre lease to develop 9.2 million tons of coal adjacent to El Segundo Mine, north of Grants, New Mexico. El Segundo Mine produces eight million tons a year. In March 2014, in response to an appeal of the sale of the lease based on environmental impacts, the BLM gave Peabody the go-ahead to expand the mine.
For the past 47 years, Peabody has operated two mines on Black Mesa, in Arizona, mining over 400 million tons of coal, using billions of gallons of water each year from the Navajo Aquifer, to provide cheap energy and water to the entire Southwest. Peabody’s use of the aquifer has allegedly resulted in the marked decline and, in some cases, eradication of seeps and springs within the region.
Coal Royalties Sought to Address Climate Impacts
Leaders of 10 Western mountain towns including Taos, New Mexico, have sent a jointly signed letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell; and other federal officials requesting assistance in getting coal companies to pay hundreds of millions of dollars a year to help the towns deal with the impacts of climate change. The town officials asked for changes in the system that collects royalties on coal.
Coal mining is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions that are widely considered to contribute to changing weather patterns. The National Institutes of Health estimates 24,000 premature deaths per year nationwide from coal burning.
Four Corners Power Plant Update
The Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement’s record of decision released on July 17 ensures the continued operation of the Four Corners Power Plant and Navajo Mine, located on Navajo Nation in northwestern New Mexico, through 2041. The decision does not allow the mine to expand, which is being contested in federal court.
Local community, regional and national environmental groups have pointed out what they consider to be significant flaws in the agency’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) and have told the DOI that the DEIS cannot be used to justify any decision to prolong the power plant or mine. The groups say, by rubber-stamping the status quo for decades to come, the federal government has left local residents and communities to assume serious pollution dangers and financial risks.
About 800 people work at the 52-year-old plant and mine. Long-time owners of the plant are leaving, including Southern California Edison and El Paso Electric, while BHP-Billiton has sold the Navajo Mine to the Navajo Nation and will exit its share of the plant’s ownership in 2016. That leaves Arizona Public Service (APS) as the majority owner responsible for the massive investment required to keep the electricity flowing. PNM still owns a 13 percent share. The Navajo Nation will have to take on increased regulatory liabilities governing coal ash, methane and wastewater. APS, after shutting down three of the facility’s five emit stacks, is faced with increased regulatory mandates for the two stacks being retrofitted to reduce emissions by at least 30 percent.
Water Resources Research Institute Unveils NM Watershed Website
State Attorney General Hector Balderas has announced that, in the interest of getting a better handle on New Mexico’s available water resources, his office is investing $1 million from its consumer protection fund (the result of settlements won in lawsuits) into the Water Resources Research Institute (WRRI) at New Mexico State University. The two $500,000 grants were approved by the state Legislature.
WRRI, under the direction of Alexander “Sam” Fernald, coordinates water-related research projects statewide. The institute has provided much of the data that is being used on a new website that provides a snapshot of the state’s water supply, water use and evaporation. The site (nmwrri.nmsu.edu) went live in July. There has been a lot of data on New Mexico surface water, but until now it hasn’t all been accessible in one location. New models and satellite tracking data that can gauge water use by plants, as well as the amount of surface water will be added to the site as part of WRRI’s Statewide Water Assessment, a multiyear project.
Balderas has called the need to find innovate ways to use water and develop a long-term strategy for future demand “a public safety issue, as well as an economic development issue.”
Legislators Request Action on Methane Hot Spots
New Mexico Senators Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall, along with Representatives Michelle Lujan Grisham and Ben Ray Lujan are urging federal officials to take action on “a methane hot spot the size of Delaware over the San Juan Basin—the largest concentration in the nation—in an area of high oil and gas production.”
Methane is a major global-warming contributor, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It absorbs 25 times more heat than carbon dioxide on a 100-year timescale. The legislators’ letter to the Office of Management and Budget also cites methane as a significant public health issue. Though methane is the largest constituent of natural gas, other toxic pollutants like benzene are often released at the same time, contributing to ozone pollution and smog. Methane is also released in coal production and from coal-fired power plants.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversees oil and gas development on federal and Indian lands. New BLM and EPA standards being considered could greatly reduce methane emissions. Flaring, venting and leaks add up to millions of dollars in lost revenue for companies, states and the federal government. Some developers have already implemented emissions-reduction plans.
National Native Food Sovereignty Summit Oct. 26–29
Native agriculture is an economic and cultural cornerstone of most Native American communities. Many tribes are implementing traditional food initiatives such as local food production, seed saving, educational workshops and ecological restoration work for culturally essential foods. Traditional diets have the potential to undo much of the illness and harm processed foods have caused Native communities.
Native communities will come together to learn from one another to promote health, wellness and food sovereignty at the third annual Food Sovereignty Summit, in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Oct. 26–29. The event will be co-hosted by First Nations Development Institute and the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. It will take place at the Radisson Green Bay Hotel and Conference Center.
The summit will feature three tracks: Applied Agriculture. Community Outreach and Products to Market. Native farmers, ranchers, gardeners, businesses, policymakers and other practitioners from around the United States will share information, program models and tools to meet growing and marketing challenges, as well as provide inspiration, mentoring and networking opportunities. There will be Experiential Learning Field Sessions (farm practices, food preservation, food handling, organic certification), a Chefs’ Corner (culinary creations from various tribal regions) and a session to connect mentors and mentees.
For more information, visit www.firstnations.org/summit
Navajo Green Economy Commission
The Navajo Green Economy Commission reconvened in July 2015. Wahleah Johns is the commission’s new chairperson. Levon Thomas is vice-chair, along with members Anna Rondon and Sam Woods.
They think the time is right for building a Navajo Nation green economy. To that end, they are planning a Solar and Wind Summit 2015, this fall in Window Rock to inform and educate Navajo Nation leaders on what they see as a tremendous opportunity to transition into a healthier, cleaner economy by investing in training a green workforce, getting people to become more energy-literate, and instituting energy-efficient, rooftop photovoltaics (PV) and microgrid technologies.
“The time is now for us to show the world that Navajo people do have the desire to reduce carbon emissions, and we need to call on DOI, DOE and other resources to help make possible more renewable-energy policies,” said Rondon. “The Navajo Green Economy Commission can provide educational resources and collaboration for long-term options.”
The commission, legislated into existence by the Navajo Nation Council in 2009 as a way for the tribe to consider climate-change mitigation and adaptation options, had its budget vetoed twice. The commissioners have volunteered since then and are looking forward to engaging with the new Begaye administration.
Navajo Language Fluency Requirement Voted Down
On July 21, Navajos voted to eliminate the requirement for their top leader to be fluent in the Navajo language. A Navajo presidential candidate who was not fluent was eliminated over the issue in a recent election. The winner, Russell Begaye, advocated for keeping the fluency requirement.
The Navajo language, an essential part of maintaining culture and tradition, is recognized worldwide as the basis for a code that helped the U.S. win World War II. Many Navajos still speak the language but its use is not widespread among young people. It is taught in schools and there are other efforts underway; films including Star Wars and Finding Nemo have been dubbed in Navajo.
SFCC Offers Scholarships to Native Students
Santa Fe Community College President Randy Grissom has signed an agreement aimed at recruiting Native American students. Under the memorandum of understanding with 11 of the region’s pueblos and tribes, each will be able to nominate two part-time students or one full-time student for a scholarship funded by the college to cover tuition and fees.
Sustainable Native Plant Nurseries in Native Communities
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Block Grant program has awarded $46,658, authorized through the 2014 Farm Bill, for the New Mexico Department of Agriculture to partner with the Río Puerco Alliance to increase economic opportunities for the pueblos of Zia, Laguna and the tri-chapter area of Eastern Navajo tribes. The NMDA will assist in developing sustainable nurseries that will provide local, culturally appropriate jobs by growing native plants that can be sold locally to larger nurseries.