Reader View: Navajos bear burden of dirty energy by Lyla Johnston

Posted: Monday, June 20, 2016 9:00 pm in the Santa Fe New Mexican

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine life without oppression when it’s all I’ve ever known. Roughly 60 percent of the Public Service Company of New Mexico’s energy is derived from coal-fired power plants.

The coal for these plants is mined from beneath Navajo feet. The smoke from these plants fills Navajo lungs. The 5 billion gallons of water used annually to operate the Four Corners Generating Station is sucked from Navajo aquifers. And yet, the electricity and revenue from these plants never seems to reach Navajo homes. One-third of our people lack electricity, even when the power lines drift overhead for miles on end. Our average median family income is $7,200. In the meantime, the top five PNM executives make more than $9 million per year. How can this be?

To be honest, even if this coal-fired money and electricity were made available to me — a Diné woman of Church Rock, N.M. — I wouldn’t want it. A Hunkpapa Lakota elder named Leroy Comes Last once told me: “All these resources that are taken out — like your oil, coal, uranium — the Creator put them there for a purpose. And they take them out without realizing what the purpose is all about. The way Creator designed it, that’s the way we like it. Every human being has a purpose; every plant; every rock; every animal. They all have a purpose.”

My people not only survived but thrived in this harsh desert for tens of thousands of years without coal mining. We understood and we embodied the fact that what Creator gave to us was enough.

And now, PNM wishes to push another rate case through the Public Regulation Commission. This case would lock New Mexican customers into payments for a 15-year-long, $580 million coal contract. It would also usher in more expensive toxic nuclear power from the Palo Verde Nuclear Station into our energy system. As Diné people, we remember the hardship of radioactive energy and we experience its horrific legacy still today.

This rate case also proposes to more than double the fixed residential fee. Why would we do this when there are cheaper and less destructive energy technologies at hand? The answer is simple: PNM proposes these rate hikes because they have already purchased expensive energy from obsolete sources, and they want New Mexicans to foot the bill.

In fact, because of the way the regulatory system is set up, for every dollar they spend as a company, they earn that dollar back through rate hikes like this, plus 11.4 percent on top of that as a “return on equity.” This backward system actually encourages PNM to spend more on energy and evade cheaper renewable-energy solutions. Again, this is because the more they invest, the more they get back from us. Why don’t we have a system that protects us from overspending and environmental degradation? The answer is simple: because we are under the thumb of a dollar-thirsty energy monopoly called PNM. They will not be fair to New Mexicans voluntarily. We will have to demand it.

Sometimes it is hard to imagine a world without oppression if it’s all you’ve ever known. But the times are changing, and we don’t have to live like this anymore. With the global community behind us, Natives can stand up to this oppression, create viable alternatives and throw off the yoke of PNM’s incessantly irresponsible, climate-altering behavior. Reject the rate case. Invest in renewables.

Lyla June Johnston is a Diné/Tsétsêhéstâhese (Navajo/Cheyenne) poet, musician, anthropologist and community organizer with a degree in environmental anthropology from Stanford University.

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