Christopher Helman Forbes Staff
After relying for generations on coal for jobs and cash, the Navajo tribe was looking for a change. Instead—thanks to NTEC Chairman Tim McLaughlin—they got deeper into mining. How could the way out of coal be . . . more coal?
tʼs a hardscrabble existence for many of the 175,000 Navajo who live on the 27,000 square miles of tribal lands that stretch across the borders of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. The median household income hovers around $30,000 a year, and more than a quarter of homes have no electricity. In early May, the coronavirus was spreading so fast that New Mexico blockaded roads in and out of Gallup, the picturesque town on the edge of the Navajo nation known as the “heart of Indian country.” The pandemic followed a particularly tough winter for some families. In November, the Kayenta strip mine and the Navajo Generating Station it supplied, both on tribal lands, finished shutting down, eliminating 800 relatively high-paying jobs and a free source of coal used by many Navajo to heat their homes.
So now, the Navajo Transitional Energy Co. (NTEC) trucks coal around the reservation. Tribe members queue to get a load dumped into their pickups from a Bobcat dozer. “They’d love to have a good job and a gas furnace. But it’s just not the reality,’’ says NTEC chairman Timothy McLaughlin, a 40-year-old attorney who grew up on the reservation and spent three and a half years as a federal environmental lawyer before turning to tribal law. It’s hard to worry about your carbon footprint, he adds, “when the alternative is freezing to death.”
Delivering free coal is a strange task for NTEC, which is already an odd entity. The company was created seven years ago with the express purpose of transitioning the Navajo through the twilight of the coal business. It planned to do that in two ways. First, by taking over mining operations on the reservation from big international companies, thereby keeping more money in the tribe to accomplish NTEC’s primary goal: to help the Navajo build up other industries to replace disappearing coal royalties and jobs. Everything began according to plan: In 2013, NTEC took over ownership of the Navajo Mine from BHP Billiton, saving 700 jobs at the mine and the accompanying Four Corners power plant. It’s been a good investment, generating $233 million in cash for the tribe under NTEC’s watch.
So in 2018, Navajo leaders asked NTEC to continue the strategy and negotiate to acquire the Kayenta mine and Navajo Generating Station. What NTEC did instead almost defies belief. Unable to agree how to share future decommissioning costs with the current owners, who wanted to cap their liability costs, NTEC walked on the deal. The owners shut down the power plant and mine, wiping out $40 million a year in coal royalties, about a quarter of tribal revenue.