In 1973, facing an energy crisis fueled by the OPEC oil embargo, President Richard Nixon made a series of decisions that put our nation on a path toward energy independence. One of those decisions was to designate the Four Corners region as a “national energy sacrifice zone.”
For the past five decades, the region’s coal mines, power plants, oil and gas wells, and uranium mines helped power our nation — creating well-paying jobs and a healthy regional economy. However, falling gas prices and the decline of the coal industry have led to high unemployment and a rapidly declining population in the Four Corners. In fact, Farmington (in the heart of the Four Corners) is, per capita, the fastest shrinking city in America.
Those trends will only worsen in the short term as cheaper and cleaner alternatives to coal drive utility companies to abandon and close the Navajo Generating Station, likely by 2019, and the San Juan Generating Station, likely by 2022, both decades before planned.
But every crisis offers an opportunity. The best solution for addressing the region’s economic crisis will also help solve the climate crisis, as well as repair some of the collateral damage caused by Nixon’s policy. While that policy helped power our nation, we now know the costs of this “sacrifice zone” have been tremendous — desecrated sacred sites, contaminated water, poisoned air, volatile economies and a global hotspot for methane.
We now have an opportunity to remake the Four Corners’ economic identity. We can remake this region into a model of democratized and decentralized renewable energy that achieves real energy independence. The Interior Department and our leaders in Congress could help lead the way.
The stakes are high. Lives, livelihoods and living, vibrant communities on and off the Navajo Nation are all at risk. Not only does San Juan County in northwestern New Mexico suffer from some of the worst asthma rates in the country, high crime rates are endemic and unemployment rates are nearing 10 percent.
By anyone’s account the region’s economy is on life support. And while it’s true that the region has for decades been susceptible to the boom and bust cycle that characterize the fossil fuel energy industry, this time it feels like the end of the era of unbridled fossil fuel extraction.
Because it’s not only the coal industry that’s in trouble. The collapse of oil prices and the growing public outcry against fracking in the Greater Chaco region means that the economic future of oil and gas will never be as bright as its past. Recognizing the expansion of drilling onto the doorstep of Chaco Culture National Historic Park, the Navajo Nation, the All Pueblo Council and the New Mexico Legislature all recently expressed support for a moratorium on developing the last undeveloped 9 percent of land.
So what’s next for this iconic region?
We know what the Trump administration wants: More exploitation that enriches Big Oil and Big Coal. They’re throwing a Hail Mary to try to extend the life of Navajo Generating Station while stripping away national monument protections for places like the Bears Ears, all in a short-sighted attempt to drill and mine our way to energy independence. While that may keep a few jobs and vital tax revenues in the short-term, it’s not a lasting and vibrant vision.
A bold, new vision of 100 percent renewable energy can create the durable, vibrant economy that people in the region deserve while respecting sacred lands and healing the climate crisis. Wind and solar power also meet the challenge of providing real, lasting energy independence.
We believe the site of mines and power plants on public lands should be redeveloped as solar plants, and the transmission lines that today move coal-fired electricity should instead transmit wind and solar power. Likewise, Congress should pass tax incentives to help the Navajo Nation benefit economically from solar and wind development. Many other solutions could become a reality with the modest support of federal agencies.
Which is why we’re calling on New Mexico Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and the Interior Department to help advance a new vision by convening a transition summit to marshal all the resources of the federal government to help the Navajo Nation and local cities and counties to envision and implement a more sustainable economy in the region.
Just as crisis was an opportunity for Nixon in 1973 to exploit the region, so too can it be an opportunity for our leaders to create a more economically just and equitable energy economy that is suited for out times and meant to last.
John Horning is executive director of the WildEarth Guardians.
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