By Jessica Keetso, Tó Nizhóní Ání Organizer
*Disclaimer: The author has a history of working with the Cameron chapter since 2016 as a Little Colorado River Watershed Chapter Association (LCRWCA) organizer and currently as a Tó Nizhóní Ání (TNA) organizer. Ms. Keetso’s paternal grandparents (Keetso/Beard) and extended relatives originate from the Dziłibáí (Gray Mountain) area. Ms. Keetso is not a registered voter of Cameron Chapter. The views expressed in this article are based on Ms. Keetso’s experience working with the Cameron Chapter on community projects and most recent participation in Cameron Solar Community Forum meeting on May 6, 2021.
On May 6, 2021, Cameron Chapter hosted an online community forum to discuss the proposed Cameron Solar Generating Facility. Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA) representatives and Cameron Chapter officials were in attendance.
This community forum comes at the heels of Legislation No. 0057-21 and President Jonathan Nez’s press release. The legislation was approved on March 31, 2021, by the Resource and Development Committee. The main purpose of the legislation is to approve a lease agreement between the Navajo Nation and NTUA. This legislation would allow NTUA to construct, operate and maintain a solar generation facility in Cameron. President Nez’s press release was issued a few days later on April 6, 2021. In the press release the President praised the project, hailing it as a continuation of the Háyoołkááł Proclamation and commended officials for working together to make the Cameron solar project, (as well as the Red Mesa/Tapaha solar project), possible. The press release and legislation gave the impression that this project was a “done deal” and that all necessary documents and requirements were in place. However, based on the community forum in Cameron, it seems NTUA forgot to check mark ‘community engagement’ off their checklist. At the May 6 community forum, Cameron community raised numerous questions and concerns that NTUA did not adequately address. A key concern raised by the community was that it was not adequately informed of this project or given regular updates or reports on its progress. It was apparent that President Nez’s press release and the correlating legislation was ill-timed and caught the community off guard.
According to various consultants to the Navajo Nation, Cameron is one of seven prime locations for utility-scale renewable energy development. These seven locations were identified based on several criteria, including possessing a combination of land, solar or wind potential and transmission accessibility. The chapters that overlap these energy corridors unfortunately must deal with being bombarded with proposals from outside (and inside) energy companies. As President Nez haphazardly tries to push his renewable energy agenda, it has become clear that he lacks the administrative foresight to ensure renewable energy isn’t monopolized, that each community who host these projects will receive the maximum benefits possible.
The Navajo Nation stumbling unsystematically through projects needs to stop. Developing energy on the Navajo Nation has never been about community inclusion or consent and if developers can, they would rather not give community benefits because it’s more money out of their pockets. The truth of the matter is, the Navajo Nation is in desperate need of an energy policy reform, a grid infrastructure overhaul, and a new energy business model. In the case of Cameron, NTUA’s action are turning out to be just as disappointing. NTUA got to circumvent certain requirements on account of being a tribal enterprise. It jumped ahead on this solar project leaping through requirements and over community consultation and consent. On May 6, it became clear that NTUA will only do the bare minimum when it comes to community engagement, and they failed to take the opportunity to use the community forum to improve trust and relationships with Cameron. They failed to use the communities’ input as a way to drive the project forward. Instead, NTUA in perfect tribal-enterprise-fashion, resorted to treating the Cameron community with indifference.
NTUA was represented by Arash Moalemi, Larry Jackson Jr., and Deenise Becenti. The NTUA representatives provided a presentation through Google Meet. Unfortunately, most residents could not view the presentation because a majority joined the virtual meeting via phone call.
NTUA’s presentation included the following: the project will produce 200 megawatts (MW) of power, all of which will be sold to Salt River Project (SRP) for 25 years. This project will also sell 100 MW of transmission rights to SRP. To give some context 1 MW of solar PV electricity will power about 150 homes in Arizona, so 200 MW could power about 30,000 homes. In 2004 NTUA estimated that there are a total of 48,000 homes on the Navajo Nation, so basically, this project could power majority of the homes on the Navajo Nation and since buying renewable energy is less expensive than fossil fuel, every Navajo electricity bill could be substantially cheaper too. However, the Navajo people will not receive this energy unless they are SRP customers.
Some of the biggest benefits of this project will go to the Navajo Nation central government, who will receive in total the following:
- $90 million in transmission payments
- Over $13 million in land lease payments.
- $6 million in tax revenue
Based on the Cameron community forum and all correlating documents there are five (5) areas of concern: lease area, the term of the lease area, Cameron Chapter supporting resolution (CAMJUL-11-18 #6), permit holder compensation and community benefits.
Lease Area & Term
The total acreage of land that NTUA will lease is 1,100.18 acres according to Navajo Legislation No. 0057-21, however the supporting resolution from Cameron Chapter (CAMJUL-11-18 #6) indicates that NTUA will lease 5,000 acres of land. NTUA’s response to this discrepancy in land withdrawal was that they only have the rights to build on the 1,100.18 acres of land. So, then what will happen to the remaining 3,899.82 acres of land? How will it be used? NTUA did not fully answer this question during the forum. NTUA was also asked where the project would be located specifically, but NTUA didn’t give any details and instead asked community members to contact them directly regarding this question.
The land lease duration also lacked clarity, NTUA told the community that the land lease was for 25 years, however, again in the legislation NTUA has the option of extending the lease term for an additional 25 years. So, Cameron could lose the use of that land for 50 years altogether. Why would NTUA not disclose this information to the community? And under what conditions would NTUA need another 25 years, if the average solar panel life span is 25 years.
In a statement letter initiated by the Cameron Community Land Use Planning Committee (CLUPC), there is also “cultural significance” tied to the project area. The Vice-President of the Diné Hataathłi Association Lorenzo Max, “describes NTUA’s project area as an important ceremonial offering site as well as a herb collection site that has been used for generations by medicine people and community”. Therefore, the previous Cameron Chapter officials have discouraged the use of this area and would like it not to be disturbed even by solar, despite solar being gentler on the land compared to coal extraction.
Although Cameron Chapter did approve a supporting resolution for NTUA (CAMJUL-11-18 #6) on July 11, 2018, past Cameron Chapter President brought the resolution’s validity into question during the community forum. The past official told NTUA that 2 years ago Cameron Chapter was under the impression that the supporting resolution was only to approve a feasibility study and not an actual project. He expressed that NTUA might not have been forthcoming nor transparent with their intentions, thus, the chapter approved the resolution under false pretenses. NTUA tried to reassure the community and defend their past actions but to no avail. As indicated later by a comment that Cameron resident Shanna Yazzie put in the chat box, “We need to retract this resolution”.
Permit Holder Compensation
Going back to the CLUPC statement letter which was addressed to President Jonathan Nez and Resource and Development Committee Chairperson Ricky Nez, was critical of the process in which NTUA acquired the project site. According to the letter, NTUA approached an elderly woman who had grazing rights to the land that the project is proposed to be built on. This woman, who is not proficient in speaking or writing in English was not even permitted to consult with her children before she signed the land waiver agreement. Later when her children asked NTUA for a copy of the documents their mother signed they were disregarded and have yet to receive anything from NTUA. Aside from the way NTUA procured the tribal land use consent forms. We need to ask what these waiver forms actually mean and why compensation for the diminishment in value of the land would be the only way a permittee holder would be compensated? Why is there is no timeline for how long the permittee holder would lose access to the land and what kind of development associated with a solar project could possible cause the land to lose value? Land is very valuable to Diné, no matter was state it’s in and NTUA just taking a resident’s right to use the land away without compensation is unacceptable. Why couldn’t the permit holder agree to defer their grazing permit for the duration of the project in exchange for some payment and then be given the land back after the project expires!? Similar unknowns exist for another NTUA solar project that is proposed for the Red Mesa Tapaha area. However, the land users in that situation were given $43,750 as compensation. Why did Red Mesa residents receive compensation, and the Cameron resident did not?
The last point of contention is the lack of community benefits. In general, “community benefits” is a term that describes the benefits that flow back to a community from a development project. The two main benefits that NTUA focuses on is scholarships and jobs. In Legislation No. 0057-21, NTUA stipulates that it will “fully support and will advocate, along with the Cameron Chapter Officials, that the Cameron Chapter should be compensated from the proceeds of the proposed Lease Agreement with the Navajo Nation for the proposed site(s)”. Further corroborating this point is the 2013 Navajo Nation Energy Policy, which states “communities impacted by energy development will be able to share in a portion of the financial benefits”. In the policy it indicates that a community is eligible to receive 5% of the annual lease payment for each lease year. There are no constraints on Chapters or requirements for the chapter to be Local Governance Act (LGA) certified written in the energy policy. And if we were to take the Navajo Nation Energy Policy as it’s written then Cameron Chapter would be entitled to receive $650,000 in total for the life of this project providing the project only last 25 years. However, because Cameron Chapter is not LGA certified, NTUA simply stipulated that Cameron Chapter could not receive these funds. If NTUA holds these projects on behalf of the people, there is not excuse why NTUA could not create a way for these funds to be set aside in the name of a community, certified or not, to use according to its priorities or land use plan. There were no further discussions or offers to assist Cameron Chapter in acquiring these funds some other way by NTUA.
Here are some suggestions that the Cameron Chapter and other communities who are faced with energy developers could ask for in terms of benefits (this list was compiled by Claire Wang at the Rocky Mountain Institute on April 7, 2021):
- Preferential hiring of local workers
- Creation of training and apprenticeship programs and scholarships
- Prevailing wage requirements and protection of workers’ right to unionize, including for contractors and subcontractors
- Workplace policies and workforce training that emphasize and accommodate Indigenous cultural practices, including cross-cultural training for non-Indigenous employees and managers
- Agreements to purchase goods and services from local businesses. This is often more effective when a specific list of local businesses is given than when developers promise to dedicate a certain share of contracts to local businesses. For example, the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation has published an “A” and “B” list of Inuvialuit businesses and required developers to use the “A” list businesses first for procurement, use the “B” list if “A” list companies are unable to deliver, and can only contract with non-listed companies if “B” list companies are unable to deliver.
- Prioritization of local businesses in bidding or tender processes
- Cash payments to local communities. These are more effective when paid out over the long-term, rather than as one-time payments. These can be fixed amounts associated with certain milestones (e.g., signing of the CBA or project start date), or can be variable costs based on extraction or production amounts. For example, local councils in the UK have made it a norm in the wind energy industry to provide at least £5,000 per MW to local communities, rising with inflation.
- Investment profit-sharing agreements, which allow local communities to invest and receive an equity share or dividend payments from the projects.
Provision of other services and projects:
- Provision of local infrastructure, such as publicly accessible green spaces and recreational facilities, affordable housing, Wi-Fi networks, culture centers, childcare centers, etc.
- Funding for studies of locally important issues (e.g., studying impacts of gentrification)
- Funding for community services, such as cultural, youth, and arts programs or counseling services.
Environmental and cultural protections:
- Inclusion of traditional knowledge in project design and operations. This can take place through the hiring of local workers in project design and operation stages, or creation of an oversight organization with local participation.
- Special protections for areas of environmental or cultural significance, which could include changes in project design
- Establishment of cleanup, recycling, and remediation requirements after operations cease
Community capacity supports:
- Technical support to local communities and businesses to explain and help successfully navigate the tendering process
- Joint ventures with local businesses
- Creation of scholarships for local students
- Funding for community organizations
Renewable Energy and Clean Energy development on the Navajo Nation is important going forward. It is essential, to mitigate climate change and save our water sources. However, it should not come at the cost of communities. To repeat the same methodologies of past energy developers and letting the Navajo Nation strike the same kinds of deals with energy companies that gave us unprofitable leases and weak contracts will inevitably led to more negative community outcomes. More profits will leave the Navajo Nation, while harmful environmental and social health impacts are left with the host communities. As an organizer with Tó Nizhóní Ání (TNA), the organization holds no position on whether or not this project should proceed. However, the organization is compelled to point out the lack of substantial community benefits, the lack of trust, transparency, and a working relationship by the Navajo Nation as shown by the Cameron solar project. It is time communities organize and speak up for the benefits that will make their communities stronger in the wake of this energy transition and Climate Crisis. For a Just and Equitable Transition, the Navajo Nation must allow communities to assert their right to collect benefits on behalf of their community. The Navajo Nation needs to be ready to assist with technical assistance to make it happen. In addition, Tribal Enterprises shouldn’t hold projects in trust for the Navajo People unless they commit to a set of community benefits- otherwise they remain self-serving entities.