We Navajos and rural New Mexicans are a forgotten people, and nowhere is that truer than with energy. From the lenses of a full-blooded Navajo, a business owner, a mom and a rural New Mexican, I can vouch for the damaging impact of unfair and unbalanced energy policies on our lives. And the situation worsens.
The Navajo Nation once enjoyed the fruits of a reasonable and evenhanded energy plan — one that recognized the benefits of fossil fuels on a tribal reservation and region with huge coal reserves as well as the pluses that renewables like solar and wind can offer. We had coal mining and coal-powered electricity plants that employed hundreds of our people and that supplied the affordable fuel for our stoves.
But those days have all but vanished, and we face an uncertain future of higher energy prices and dwindling energy-related jobs. That’s a curse on the Navajo reservation. As coal and other fossil fuel energy sources have dwindled, poverty and its byproducts have spiked, including alcoholism, drug abuse, trauma and domestic violence.
The Biden administration’s ban on oil and gas leases on federal lands is just the latest blow to a people and a region that cannot afford higher energy prices and more job losses. New Mexico’s drilling footprint on federal land is wide, and nearly 25 percent of our state’s tax revenue comes from oil and gas. Restricting drilling risks the loss of more than 60,000 jobs and $800 million in tax revenues in New Mexico, by one estimate.
I trace the impact of that ban on why it now costs over $110 from $65 to fill our plumbing company and floral delivery trucks. That impact comes out of our grocery budget and affects what I can feed my husband and our eight children.
Like many Navajo families, we’re also coal users. It takes about three loads to fill our needs each winter. The closing of the coal mines and coal-generated electricity plants over the last few years threatens our heating needs and raises the price we must pay. We’re not alone. We’ve heard of rural families putting trash and clothes in their coal-burning stoves because the coal pumps were silenced.
It galls me when good-intentioned opponents of oil and gas fail to grasp just how much they depend on petroleum. The most popular cosmetics are petroleum-based. The growing number of electric vehicle charging stations depend on diesel and oil. As for recycling, we can’t afford to be wasteful. We’re water haulers and must go into town and use five-gallon jugs for our filtered water supply. Yet the number of plastic water bottles that people drink from and toss is astounding.
The coronavirus has only worsened the situation. As plumbers, we calculate how large a new septic tank a family will need based on water usage, and the larger the system the more expensive it will be. Over the past year, we have seen septic tanks serving six to seven families in one house on average instead of five families. Their septic systems can’t handle that.
I am pro-energy and am looking to the future in energy. But solar and wind power that cost much more than affordable natural gas or coal cannot supply all our energy needs. First and foremost, we need an energy policy that doesn’t forget about us. That actually boosts our economy and recognizes that 75 percent of our coal is still in the ground, as is a huge reservoir of oil and gas.
Karen Bedonie of Mexican Springs is a Navajo, mother of eight and a business owner.