Guest column: Navajo Nation needs regenerative energy path

Guest Column (photo/Adobe)

Guest Column (photo/Adobe)

After a century of a fossil fuel-based economy, the Navajo Nation is shifting to a non-carbon energy economy. The capital from the extractive industry made multinational corporations enormously wealthy but resulted in egregious health and environmental consequences for Indigenous communities. This shift is difficult, but it also gives us a chance to take advantage of this turning point and to better understand clean energy to protect future generations.

The Southwest has a long history of sacrificing Indigenous communities for capital through uranium extraction, coal mining, and other fossil fuel development. The Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) scientists tell us we have seven years to cut the planet's greenhouse-gas emissions in half, an ambitious yet necessary timeline if we are to protect our children and grandchildren from catastrophe. We have no choice but to commit ourselves to an all-hands-on-deck battle against climate change. In this energy transition comes the opportunity to empower and inform Indigenous communities of the decision-making processes for a regenerative, equitable energy economy.

Indigenous communities should be in the driver's seat, shaping an energy transition that benefits us most and accounts for economic and cultural implications that center our traditional ways. We need to understand the direction our leadership is pointing us and ask the following questions. Are we advancing our Navajo Nation Energy Policy of 2013 with the right balance of stewardship and sustainability or to the missions and visions of the extractive industry? Is the Navajo Nation's new vetting process of energy projects fair and transparent to Indigenous communities? How can we maneuver this energy transition so we do not repeat the unjust past of environmental misfortune and destruction from fossil fuel? What is the Navajo Nation's role in the Western Interstate Hydrogen Hub (WISHH) and Southwest Clean Hydrogen Innovation Network (SHINe) of hydrogen projects using federal funds from the Inflation Reduction Act? Is our leadership investing in hydrogen projects that use methane as an energy feedstock among carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS)?

Hydrogen production accounts for a lot of water and energy use. Let me define two colors of hydrogen the Navajo Nation has recently mentioned. Grey hydrogen has methane as its energy resource and produces carbon dioxide. Blue hydrogen uses methane with steam methane reforming (SMR) technology and CCUS to capture the carbon dioxide. The high-temperature SMR technology converts methane into one part hydrogen to create seven parts carbon dioxide. Carbon capture has the potential to remove a large amount of carbon dioxide and store it. There are over 35,000 oil and gas wells in the San Juan Basin. Does blue hydrogen place a level of risk for the water table in this carbon dioxide injection?

Carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS) have an unproven track record. They are not capturing high carbon dioxide emissions and are expensive, with a high fuel cost. Gas plants need 25% to 50% more energy to run CCUS, increasing upstream emissions. According to an MIT study, CCUS has high energy use and rising electricity costs. Do we support more electric output for more emissions for less power generation? Is this economically viable as the world is emerging with new technologies that will only make investments in hydrogen infrastructure feasible for a decade? The bottom line for fossil hydrogen - is that it will create more pollution without generating more power.

We are at a crossroads. We can continue chasing shrinking dollars on projects that continue to harm us, our land, and take our precious water. Or, we can learn from the mistakes made surviving in a fossil fuel economy that harmed Indigenous communities. Our leaders, Chapters, and community can all work towards understanding and implementing clean energy projects.

We desperately need to implement a pathway of regenerative energy with solar, wind, and battery storage that has no carbon dioxide emissions to capture and bury, without methane to leak, and one that will generate truly affordable electricity. Most importantly, it gives us hope in moving forward with renewable energy projects that will support Indigenous communities in economic development and job creation that give us the potential for a healthy environmental future.

Wendy Atcitty

Indigenous Energy Program Manager


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