This is a story about Wyoming’s near future, though it takes place in Arizona.
Entering Page, Arizona, the plan was to ask one question of 10 people, “With the closing of the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station (NGS), on Nov. 18, 2019, is the view less hazy?” If I were not understood, I would ask something like, “Can you now see the mountains over there more clearly?” Or, I could ask, “Has the air quality gotten a little better?”
Nine out of the 10 answered in the affirmative. Their answers ranged from, “Much more clear and better,” to a tepid, “A little better.” One man was quite specific, “It used to be that in the morning, especially in the winter, you could hardly see Lake Powell, and not too well down into the canyons.” This man’s description, of course, exactly correlates with the common atmospheric inversions, influenced by topography, all over the west.
The shopkeeper who didn’t indicate that the air was cleaner said, “The view hasn’t changed. We’ve lost a lot of jobs because of ‘environmentals.’”
Like comparing dinosaurs to mice, NGS was much bigger than most electricity producing plants. One could argue that it was actually about 100 miles long. This past December, I toured the whole thing.
NGS was a 2,250-megawatt plant, sending power to Arizona, Nevada, and California. The enormous plant in Page was connected, via a 78-mile-long electric railroad, to the base of a steep slope, where a massive conveyor belt, itself electric and many miles in length, delivered coal to a skyscraper silo/hopper, where the trains were loaded with coal. The conveyor belt came from two open-pit mines atop Black Mesa, themselves many square miles in extent.
What kind of megalomaniac designed this thing? Like Wyoming mines, it consumed a big part of its own production. Could they possibly have been less efficient? Coal is a commodity that has to be extracted from the Earth, transported, processed, then fed into a big furnace before a lightbulb can shine. Comparing this to wind and solar energy, neither of which requires a commodity, it becomes apparent that coal can no longer compete.
At its peak, this complex directly employed about 1,000 people. About 90% were Navajo or Hopi. On these reservations, unemployment is high, and poverty is common. As in Wyoming, good-paying jobs are sacrosanct, or at least the money is, but the coal industry is in conflict with everything else. In the area of Arizona discussed here, the pros and cons of the 45 years of the coal industry are a mixed bag, but evidently it was not sustainable.
On or near the reservations, I picked up Indian hitchhikers five times, and delivered them anywhere from a few miles to over 40. In conversations, I inferred that black lung disease was pretty common. According to several scientific studies, the damage to groundwater, and related springs and wells in this arid landscape, will take an indeterminate amount of time, if ever, to repair.
The three chimneys in Page are 775 feet tall. They will probably be demolished this fall, with explosives at their bases. Many people are expected in Page to see the spectacle.
Page already has a bustling tourism and retirement-community economy, with lots of scenic attractions and outdoor activities. Also, for about three years the decommissioning of the energy complex will employ a lot of people. A solar plant near Kayenta is in operation, and others are on the drawing board.
There are security people, too, and I met three of them, chasing me down in pickups. Apparently, while exploring monster infrastructure, I missed several “NO TRESPASSING” signs. Asking various questions about all these idled things, they said that they were not allowed to answer questions, and that I could not take pictures — oops. One said, “Look, get lost!”
Recently, some Wyoming politicians have described the state’s coal industry as “robust,” or “thriving!” Are they correct? Wyoming had seven coal-mine bankruptcies in 2019. Is there really a “War on Coal,” or is it just capitalism doing its thing? Nationally, since Trump entered the White House, 50 coal-fired plants have closed. Fifty-one have announced they will close soon. There is a tiny new one in Alaska.
The defense of coal is untenable, but in Wyoming it is common, at high political levels, and seemingly holy. Our coal mines will make interesting archeological sites, and some tourists might wander around. If you hear anyone praising coal, however, just say, “Look, get lost!”
Tom Gagnon has been an explorer and avid outdoorsman in the Rocky Mountain area for 33 years. He lives in Rock Springs.