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Navajo Nation, the largest tribe in the United States, has faced a number of enemies in its long history: Anasazi warriors, Andrew Jackson and now, lawyered-up environmentalists.
The Navajo homeland, an area that spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, is endowed with abundant coal deposits. That makes it ideal for powering the Southwest.
Navajo elders are trying to build a new coal-fired power plant to export electricity off the reservation and rev up their ailing economy. For environmentalists, however, coal is unacceptable, no matter the economic consequences, because it comes with a large carbon moccasin print.
According to Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley, the $3 billion, 1,500-megawatt Desert Rock power plant would create more than 1,000 annual jobs during the four-year construction period, 400 permanent jobs, and generate more than $50 million annually in reservation revenues. This would be welcome relief -- the reservation is plagued by unemployment of almost 50 percent.
A coal power plant may be an economic boon for the Navajos, but it's an eco-sin to green groups. They boast of having stopped the construction of 100 coal plants, as if imposing expensive energy on American consumers is a good thing. Now they have unleashed a phalanx of lawyers to stop the Navajo Nation from helping itself.
Despite the Navajo Nation's efforts to ensure that the Desert Rock Plant would be up to 10 times cleaner than other regional plants for key particulate pollutants, the Environmental Protection Agency only grudgingly granted an air quality permit last summer, after a six-year delay. Then, in an unprecedented decision this April, the EPA rescinded the permit at the behest of lawyers for environmentalist advocacy groups like EarthJustice.
EPA officials claim they need more time evaluate the environmental effect of the plant, but they've been on the case for years. A more plausible explanation is that President Barack Obama is trying to keep his campaign pledge to "bankrupt" the American coal industry to save the planet from global warming.
A coalition of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, is trying to convince the Navajos to ditch coal for clean, green sources of energy, such as wind and solar power. But that's like trading Long Island for a box of beads.
Historically, environmentalists have held up Native Americans as the ultimate green icon. In 1971, the green nonprofit Keep America Beautiful sponsored a famous anti-pollution television advertisement featuring a Native American man brought to tears by a littered landscape. This has been denounced as a "fantasy of the master race," i.e., the idealization of Indians by non-Indians for self-serving reasons.
From the comfort of their air-conditioned offices in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., environmentalists are happy to partner with the Native Americans. However, that collaboration is remarkably one-sided and exploitative.
If greens can use Native Americans to shame consumers into thinking material prosperity is a sin, they're all for it. But the minute the Indians decide to try to better their situation by responsibly using natural resources (on their own land!), greens start to beat the war drums and send in the lawyers.