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Sacrifice Zone Communities Push for a Just Transition in Arizona

No amount of funding can bring water back, but other actions can offer accountability for the region’s exploitation.

Yolinda Mejia, of the Navajo Nation, siphons water into a five gallon bucket to use for a load of laundry outside her home on the Navajo Reservation on July 4, 2022, in Cameron, Arizona.

There are energy eventualities we know for certain. Coal production has been in decline for decades. Mines have been stripped of their underground deposits, meaning there’s simply less coal to dig out. Natural gas, long deemed coal’s competitor, is cheaper to produce. We know that one potential solution for climate change is wind- and solar-generated electric power that doesn’t require the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. We also know the transition away from fossil fuels is needed to avert further global climate crises — and it’s inevitable, as suppliers and consumers lean toward carbon-neutral solutions.

Advocates also argue that what’s needed is an equitable and Just Transition for communities and workers impacted by and dependent on fossil fuel-based jobs, like coal-power energy production.

Community advocates in Arizona and residents of the Navajo Nation have just a few months remaining to convince the state’s energy regulatory body, the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC), to ensure that a utility rate increase includes funds for a Just Transition. Residents of the Navajo Nation, led by a coalition of Diné and other Indigenous-led organizations, say that Tucson Electric Power (TEP), the company petitioning the ACC for a rate increase, has no plan to provide coal-impacted communities with jobs, supportive services, funding, or environmental accountability despite relying on the community’s labor and land for decades.

The vast majority of people are serviced by utility companies that are investor-owned and operated and purportedly tasked with providing the lowest rates to customers while generating revenue for the companies in the supply chain. Investor-owned utilities like TEP have to ensure returns on equity for investors, which is how the company successfully petitioned for an average 6% rate increase (or $5.20) in 2019. The company argued that additional funds provided by the increase were needed to pay for “a cleaner, more flexible, reliable and resilient energy portfolio.” TEP has publicly said that by 2035, its goal is to get 70% of power from wind and solar and to decrease carbon dioxide emissions by 80%. By contrast, the ACC rejected a utility-supported mandate in 2021 to transition the state’s energy generation to 100% renewable by 2050. The ACC approved TEP’s rate increase in December 2020 for implementation in 2021.

Earlier this year, residents provided feedback in the final round of public comment before the ACC potentially approves the latest rate increase, which could be as much as 12%, though the final amount has not been made clear to the public. The grassroots organizations pushing for a Just Transition fund don’t oppose the rate increase, but they demand that a portion of the funds goes back to the communities impacted by coal and energy production.

There’s an irony in TEP’s claim that funding is needed for so-called clean energy: the declining health and economic well-being of Diné communities has made investors rich and powered homes in larger Arizona municipalities. The utility sector is now willing to go green, having seen the writing on the wall that money can be made from climate-friendly energy. But where’s the return on investment for those who gave of themselves and their ancestral land?

A Once-in-a-Generation Opportunity

When the owners and operators of the Navajo Generating Station (NGS) closed the West’s largest coal plant in 2019, about 400 workers lost their jobs. The Salt River Project, the majority owners and operators of the station, claimed 60% of the workers were redeployed. However, the economy that built up around coal operations never fully recovered.

Nicole Horseherder, co-founder and director of Tó Nizhóní Ání, an organization advocating that the ACC include funding for a Just Transition, said that utility companies bear responsibility for what happens to communities after they leave. Instead, communities are forced to “fend for themselves.”

“We’re recommending a number of ways to do this,” Horseherder explained, detailing how the company could provide financial support to the tribal government, which could better direct funds and services to revive the coal-impacted communities. TEP could also reinvest in the infrastructure of Navajo Nation by putting renewable energy on already existing transmission lines and committing to buying renewable energy from the nation itself.

Tó Nizhóní Ání forged a rate case battle with the other investor-owned utility company in the state, Arizona Public Services (APS). APS offered $144 million at the end of 2020 to three coal-impacted communities in response to the 2019 closure of the NGS and in anticipation of the 2031 closure of the Four Corners Power Plant (FCPP) and the 2025 closure of the Cholla Power Plant (CPP).

Tribal leaders of the Navajo Nation and APS approved the plan, which called for direct payments to the nation, building power lines, funding economic development, and supporting the nation’s pursuit of water rights. The ACC, however, slashed funding to $40 million when it approved the plan.

Horseherder maintains that the agreement fell far short of what’s actually needed to support and sustain the community, and it failed to acknowledge the exploitation of resources like water.

Prism reached out to APS for comment but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

The Four Corners Power Plant used “an enormous amount” of water from the upper basin of the Colorado River, Horseherdersaid. “By the time that both the plant and the coal mining operation ended, we on Black Mesa have all but lost our springs.”

This year, as the ACC finalizes the terms of the TEP rate case, Horseherder hopes that the agreements will acknowledge the sacrifice Diné peoples and other impacted communities have made. No amount of funding can bring water back, but other actions can offer accountability for the exploitation and loss of water.

What the ACC decides this year has the ability to set a precedent of accountability between utility providers and the communities that make their product. It’s also a critical step in ending reliance on fossil fuels before their continued use puts the earth’s temperature well above the 1.5 degrees Celsius point of no return.

“We are in a once-in-a-50 year opportunity to transform and transition,” said Mike Eisenfeld, the energy and climate program manager for the San Juan Citizens Alliance, an environmental and community advocacy organization supporting the fight for Just Transition funds in the TEP rate case.

TEP is part-owner in the Four Corners Power Plant, which is located in the Four Corners region of New Mexico. The two remaining units at FCPP are slated for shutdown by 2031. According to testimony by Eisenfeld to the ACC, FCPP and another nearby mine generated an annual payroll of about $100 million to 700 workers, the majority of whom were Diné. Another $100 million in taxes, fees, and royalties was paid to local, state, tribal, and federal groups. While utility companies like TEP look toward solar and wind energy production, people remain without jobs, and environmental contamination remains.

TEP is already planning for the closure of its two units at the Springerville, Arizona, power plant and has contributed shareholder funding to transition support for that community, Eisenfled said. However, TEP “has not contributed a dime” to tribal communities because the utility company claims it needs guidance from the commission before committing ratepayer funding, he added, a stark difference from the 2020 commitment APS made to developing 600 MW of replacement power on tribal land. Thus far, TEP has made no commitment to developing replacement power projects in coal-impacted communities, tribal or not, “despite having issued two [requests for proposals] for new generating capacity since the closure of [Navajo Generating Station],” Eisenfeld said.

Coal mining is known as one of the “most destructive activities on earth.” Coal mining pollutes waterways and underground aquifers, rendering them uninhabitable to insects and animals. Climate change, the corporatization of water, and the past three decades of drought in Arizona also threaten water reserves and, subsequently, Diné and Hopi cultures. Sheepherding, weaving, and plant medicine are all contingent on clean water. Coal mining and processing pollute the air, releasing methane, a greenhouse gas more than 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere in its first 20 years, along with hundreds of millions of tons of other toxic chemicals. In the San Juan Basin, near the generating station that bears the same name, 75% of the atmosphere is polluted.

Environmental harms exacerbate ongoing structural disinvestment. An estimated 30% of residents living in the Navajo Nation and 18% of residents living in the Hopi Nation do not have access to clean, running water.

Independent research conducted by Tó Nizhóní Ání in 2011 reported that 60% of residents in the Navajo Nation said at least one family member had breathing problems. A 2022 study by Harvard University found that even low levels of exposure to toxic particulate matter can lead to or exacerbate heart and lung disease; the main regulatory framework for air quality standards, the Clean Air Act, is insufficient to protect people. Even when federal agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services, which runs the Indian Health Service, and the Environmental Protection Agency, find that baseline levels of cancer and other illnesses exceed the acceptable ranges in the region, agencies often fail to take significant action. Across the country, it’s not uncommon for communities to report environmental health impacts that federal agencies ignore for years because of inadequate or out-of-date research and data.

The New Mexico legislature approved an Energy Transition Act in 2019, which requires companies to divest from coal mines and plants, replace fossil fuels with renewables, and provide funding to workers and affected communities. But this doesn’t apply to Arizona, even though 80% of the power generated at the Four Corners Power Plant heads to residents in the state.

“I think what has transpired in the past couple of years has been a reluctance from the Arizona Corporation Commission to want to set a precedent so that the environmental justice legacy around here is that most of the big companies leave before they have to pay for cleanup or acknowledge the historic pollution issue,” Eisenfeld said.

In 2022, the Department of Energy and other federal agencies established a working group to address the myriad economic and environmental needs in the Four Corners region. Eisenfeld, the San Juan Citizens Alliance, and others are involved in conversations to direct resources.

Not Shying Away From a Political Fight

Starting in the early 1980s, the Four Corners region became a national “sacrifice zone,” charged with providing coal, natural gas, and uranium at the cost of water, air, land, and eventually human health. Uranium mining, which fed the country’s military interests in nuclear power, left behind a legacy of pollution and illness for which residents created a “death map” to commemorate those lost to cancer.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of communities were made to sacrifice throughout the 20th century. As the federal government subsidized some of the largest infrastructure projects across the West, the health of people and land were positioned as incongruent and subservient to national security.

Camille Pannu, an associate clinical professor of law at Columbia Law School as well as the founder and director of the Just Transition Clinic, said that part of why we have such heavy reliance on fossil fuel-generated power is because the federal government put extraordinary amounts of public funds into subsidizing its development. In an effort to economically recover from the Great Depression, the federal government attempted large-scale infrastructure projects with a “heavy focus on militarization,” Pannu said.

“Whether that was [by] giving away land easements, direct subsidies or, for example, the Tennessee Valley Power Authority was created by the federal government — a lot of the big dam projects that provide hydroelectric on the Colorado River out in the Southwest, including Arizona, [were] facilitated by government,” Pannu said. In California, the Central Valley Project, which created the vast farmland that now provides one-fourth of the country’s food, also sacrificed Indigenous tribes and peoples. California offered one of the state’s primary utility providers, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, land at little to no cost. The company is now worth over $40 billion. Even the highway system, largely created by the Highway Act of 1956, was a defense effort.

Throughout this period of expansion, federally subsidized industry growth, and contrived dependency on industrial water and food systems, Indigenous peoples were forcibly relocated from their homelands to areas viewed as “useless pieces of land,” wrote Kimberly Smith, who is Diné and an expert on climate change for the United Nations. “These lands were deemed ‘useless’ because they had poor vegetation. Now, these ‘useless pieces of land’ are rich in oil, gas, coal, uranium, and water,” Smith wrote.

Extraction of fossil fuels is built into the function of the U.S., as is the ethos of mineral, gas, oil, and coal recovery that takes as much as possible for as long as possible to make as much money as possible. This renders the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy — in partnership with the people and communities who turn raw material into a utility — into an economic and political fight.

“The political history means that decarbonization is not a technical problem, it’s a political one,” said J. ​​Mijin Cha, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, whose scholarly expertise includes Just Transition. “We shouldn’t run away from political fights or politicization of the work.” In other words, fulfilling a Just Transition away from fossil fuels isn’t just a matter of what happens to people and land, but how it happens.

It’s been five decades since the labor movement and trade unions bore the framework of a Just Transition. Corporate owners and some government officials have ignited and renewed a backlash to worker power in recent years. Coupled with an environmental backlash and sporadic federal action on climate change, it’s clear that the two struggles have a lot in common.

The TEP rate case sits at the tail end and in a turning point of American history.

Moving Toward a Just Transition With Purpose

The transition from a fossil fuel-based energy system to one that makes use of already available sunlight and wind will be expensive. For starters, current utility systems are built to process coal and gas. Different energy sources will require updated or new generating stations, transformers, and transmission lines. Some experts are concerned there aren’t enough electricians to install solar panels or electrify homes — even if there were sufficient infrastructure to support the hundreds of millions of homes, businesses, and public buildings across the U.S. Money also needs to be spent on weatherizing infrastructure against climate change-related extreme weather, like storms, hurricanes, and heat. Others warn that the pace of decarbonization is too slow to meet climate goals and supplant reliance on liquified natural gas, which is also why utility rates continue to climb across the country. The war in Ukraine is also a reason why the price of natural gas has increased.

Renewable energy production comprised nearly two-thirds of all new power-generating infrastructure in 2016. Coal production is declining, but it’s not a certainty that the market will choose renewable energy over fossil fuels without concerted and intentional intervention.

“We are also producing more oil and gas than ever before,” Cha said. “We can’t just assume that if there’s enough renewable energy, that will then reduce demand for fossil fuels.”

Experts differ in opinion on which entities are best suited to carry out Just Transition objectives. Communities know themselves and their needs best and should be at the center of the discussion of how fossil fuel corporations can be accountable to them, Cha said. But the federal government is best situated to leverage resources in a way local economies can’t, she added.

Pannu has some doubts about the federal government’s willingness to achieve large-scale renewable energy transition projects that center the needs of disinvested communities. She thinks it would be difficult for Just Transition legislation to get through Congress. If a law or executive order were to be implemented, the Supreme Court has also proven itself oppositional to environmental interests. That leaves state and local action, with help from outside advocates.

There are examples of this approach working in other places. ​Ed Gilliland, senior director of strategic initiatives at the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC), said that his organization worked with agencies and communities in the Appalachian region of western Virginia to build an economy based on solar energy production.

The IREC worked with Appalachian Voices, a local environmental organization, to facilitate conversations with stakeholders and community members. There was an interest in rehabilitating brownfields, former fossil fuel extraction sites, into solar fields.

Typically, solar construction jobs might last three to six months. But in an area like southwest Virginia, where so many former coal communities are seeking to transition with the industry, Gilliland said projects are popping up all over.

“This keeps on going for years and years,” he said. “Temporary construction job [can turn] into permanent work for somebody.”

What happened in Virginia is analogous to what the broader movement for a Just Transition is working toward: permanent solutions that guarantee dignity to people and the environment.

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