Legislative Pulse: Arizona Sen. Begay Discusses Regulations Harming Navajo Nation

Published October 8, 2015

Editor’s Note: Second-term Arizona state Sen. Carlyle Begay (D-Ganado) represents the largest state legislative district in the nation. He serves on the Education, Water, and Energy, Transportation, and Financial Institutions Committees and is chair of the Senate Ad Hoc Committee on Indian Affairs. 

Burnett: How important is the coal industry to the Navajo Nation and Arizona in general? 

Begay: I represent unique communities in the Southwest directly impacted by a coal economy, including the Navajo Nation. Energy and water resources have shaped Arizona’s past and present, and [they] will figure prominently in Arizona’s future.

The Navajo Nation’s unemployment rate is over 50 percent. Currently, revenue from coal represents 60 percent of the Navajo Nation’s general funds and operating budget. Absent political restrictions on the use of coal, coal mining and the Navajo Generating Station on the Navajo Nation’s land would be expected to boost its economy by over $13 billion dollars over the next 25 years!

Today, the Navajo Nation mines approximately eight to 10 million tons of coal each year, down from 13 to 16 million tons before U.S. [Environmental Protection Agency] regulations began to restrict the use of our resources. Additionally, a coal-fired power plant owned by the Navajo Nation produces approximately 3,750 megawatts of electricity sold primarily outside the Nation. The industry is responsible for more than 2,500 of the highest-paying jobs in the Navajo Nation. These revenues represent the Navajo Nation’s ability to act as a sovereign nation.

The latest round of EPA regulations resulted in the shutdown of three of the five power generating units at the Four Corners Power Plant and the forced investment of a billion dollars in retrofits on the remaining two units. This in turn reduced the coal mined at our Navajo Mine while simultaneously increasing the cost of power generation.

Our power plant and mine’s continued existence are under threat from additional EPA regulations. 

Burnett: What are some of the specific rules in EPA’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) that will impose hardship on the Navajo Nation? 

Begay: On Monday, August 3, the EPA released the final rule for the CPP. The final rule will impact Navajo Nation interests in key ways.

First, the final rule includes Indian Country. In November 2014, EPA published a proposed supplemental rule to cover Indian Country—three tribes with electric generating units—and territories. The proposed supplemental rule was intended to determine if these geographic areas should be separate from the 50 states, with separate goals and approaches. The final rule did not separate Indian Country from the states, so the three tribes will have to comply with the final rule, as a part of the state as a whole, yet the tribes have separate standards from the state.

Second, the CPP’s final rule emissions goals, with respect to tribal impacts, are significant. EPA changed its methodology for calculating emissions rates between its initial proposal and the final rule. There are two different ways of calculating necessary emission cuts: a rate-based goal and a mass-based goal. Under the proposed rule, using the mass-based goal, no further emission reductions were required for the Navajo [electric generating units] to be in ‎compliance, and emission reductions under the rate-based goal were relatively modest—less than 10 percent.

Under the finalized rule, this is no longer the case. Under the final plan, an emissions decrease of 38 percent is required under the rate-based goal and 31 percent under the mass-based goal. Thus, the CPP will likely require additional coal-fired generating units to be shut down to meet either the mass-based or rate-based goals.

Third, state plans must include community outreach. The final rule requires each state plan to demonstrate how the state has meaningfully engaged stakeholders, including low-income communities and indigenous communities, to determine impacts of state plans on those communities. [In 2014], Arizona passed legislation allowing our Department of Environmental Quality to work with the Navajo Nation, to develop a multi-jurisdictional partnership in its state implementation plan. 

Burnett: What other environmental issues are you tracking?

Begay: The impact of federal water policies is also profound in the Southwest, meaning I’m closely monitoring the potential implications of the EPA’s Waters of the United States rule[, also called WOTUS.] Arizona faces a substantial uncertainty and vulnerability surrounding the control over our water supply. Managing that uncertainty and limiting that vulnerability will require a partnership between tribes and the state.

Today, Arizona uses over eight million acre-feet of water each year. Surface water provides over 50 percent of the water used in the state, with vast groundwater aquifers providing another 40 percent of its water supply. Recycled water, which is wastewater treated to suitable reuse standards, comprises 3 percent of the Arizona’s water supply, and its use is growing.

From 1957 to 2013, Arizona reduced its water consumption by 100,000 acre-feet. I want to reiterate we use less water today than we did in 1957, and thanks to careful planning, there is approximately nine million acre-feet of water stored in Arizona.

That’s remarkable when you consider our population has increased six-fold while our gross domestic income has increased nineteen-fold since 1957.

Despite this good news, a growing population and WOTUS mean there remains uncertainty and vulnerability concerning Arizona’s water resources.

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a research fellow with The Heartland Institute.