President Obama owns a coal-fired power plant. A big one.
Okay, not Mr. Obama personally. But the federal government is indeed the largest owner of the biggest coal power plant in the West: 2,250-megawatt Navajo Generating Station near the Grand Canyon on the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona.
In his inaugural address pledge to respond to the threat of devastating climate change, the president said that America must lead the transition toward sustainable energy sources. Promising news for our children, but what are the specifics?
Many have pointed to the upcoming decision on the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. But similarly telling will be the role the Administration plays in decisions that loom on Navajo Generating Station.
There are coal plants all over the country, but this one's different. The U.S. government co-owns the plant in order to provide electricity for canal pumps that carry Colorado River water uphill over 300 miles from western Arizona to the central and southern parts of the state.
Navajo Generating Station dates back nearly 40 years, to when I was a child attending a Navajo reservation boarding school in Shonto, about an hour drive from the coal plant. I remember being picked up on Fridays after school and driving with my family to Page to load up on groceries before heading home. The scenery on those drives always struck me: the red tones of the land and the high sandstone mesas meeting a huge dome of blue sky. It's an area admired by photographers worldwide.
On those car rides, I also remember seeing the bright lights of Navajo Generating Station and Peabody's coal mining operations. I wondered why they had lights and we didn't, or if this would mean our lands would look like a big city one day. At that time most homesteads on the reservation, like my grandmother's, didn't have electricity or running water.
Today, decades later, there is much that remains the same. The coal plant and mine are still going, and many Navajo homes in the area still lack electricity and running water.
But times, and views, have also changed. Communities in the area today are deeply concerned about water. Navajo Generating Station has used about 34,000 acre-feet of water every year and mining operations on Black Mesa have depleted ancient fossil groundwater aquifers that cannot be replenished.
People are concerned about health. Navajo Generating Station has been among the worst in the nation in emissions of nitrogen oxide pollution, which reacts in the atmosphere to form fine particulate pollution, one of the most dangerous air pollutants.
With super storms and drought, Navajo Generating Station's smokestacks now gain notoriety as Arizona's single biggest source of climate-warming carbon pollution. Today, area residents who try to make a living from ranching, farming, weaving or other activities that require plentiful water and a healthy environment worry for their future.
That's the backdrop for decisions that loom this year about Navajo Generating Station, decisions that in part fall at the feet of the Obama Administration. Should resources be poured into installing modern pollution controls for the aging plant, as is necessary under the Clean Air Act to prolong its operation?
Or, after nearly 40 years, is it time for progress toward a different economic future on the Navajo reservation, to map a transition to power, jobs, and revenue from the clean energy so readily available from the constant sun on our land?
The heads of three federal agencies -- Interior, Energy, and EPA -- have announced that they'll work together on the matter of Navajo Generating Station. But their aims have been vague. Will they carry out President Obama's inaugural mission to claim the promise of clean energy sources, to maintain our economic vitality and preserve our planet?
Corporations such as Peabody, the multinational coal mining company that supplies Navajo Generating Station, certainly won't stand quietly on the sidelines. Mr. Obama acknowledged in his speech that the path towards sustainable energy will be sometimes difficult. This coal plant near the rim of the Grand Canyon will be a test of his resolve, a second-term energy bellwether to watch.