Sometimes it’s hard to imagine life without oppression when it’s all I’ve ever known. It seems like the only time I have sovereignty is when private companies want to build a casino or a power plant on my land. All of a sudden they have concern for my “rights.”
Roughly 60 percent of PNM’s energy is derived from coal-fired power plants. The coal for these plants is mined from beneath Navajo feet. The smoke from these plants fills Navajo lungs. The 5 billion gallons of water used annually to operate the Four Corners Power Plant alone is sucked from Navajo aquifers.
And yet, the electricity and revenue from these plants never seems to reach Navajo homes. One third of our people lack electricity, even when the power lines drift overhead for miles on end. Our average median family income is $7,200, while in the meantime the top five PNM executives make more than $9 million per year. How can this be?
To be honest, even if this coal-fired money and electricity were made available to me – a Diné woman with roots in Church Rock, N.M. – I wouldn’t want it. A Hunkpapa Lakota elder named Leroy Comes Last once told me: “All these resources that are taken out – like your oil, coal, uranium – the Creator put them there for a purpose. And they take them out without realizing what the purpose is all about. The way Creator designed it, that’s the way we like it. Every human being has a purpose: every plant, every rock, every animal. They all have a purpose.”
Reflecting on his words, I realize my people not only survived, but thrived, in this harsh desert for tens of thousands of years without coal mining. We understood and we embodied the fact that what Creator gave us was enough.
And now, PNM wishes to push another rate case through the Public Regulation Commission. This case, which would lock New Mexico customers into payments for a 15-year, $580 million coal contract, would also usher more expensive, toxic nuclear power from Palo Verde Nuclear Station into our energy system. As Diné people, we know the hardship of uranium mining and enrichment, and we live with its horrific legacy still today.
This rate case also proposes to more than double the fixed residential fee. Why would we do this when there are cheaper and less destructive energy technologies at hand? The answer to this question is simple: PNM proposes these rate hikes because they purchased expensive energy from obsolete sources and now they want New Mexicans to foot the bill.
In fact, because of the way the regulatory system is set up, for every dollar they spend as a company, they earn that dollar back through rate hikes like this, plus 11.4 percent of that dollar on top as a “return on equity.” This backward system actually encourages PNM to spend more on energy and evade cheaper, less destructive and maintenance-free renewable energy solutions. Again, this is because the more they invest, the more they get back from us. Why don’t we have a system that protects us from overspending and environmental degradation?
It would be a disservice, not only to ourselves, but to the morality of PNM leadership, if we allowed them to fleece us once again. There is no amount of gold, no amount of shareholder value, no nice house or fancy car that is worth one’s honor. And so, not only for the sake of our people, our land and our children, but also for the sake of our dear relatives at PNM headquarters, who risk losing their very honor, we must refuse this.
Sometimes it is hard to imagine a world without oppression if that is all you have ever known. But the times are changing. We don’t have to live like this anymore. With the global community behind us, we can stand up to this oppression, create viable alternatives and throw off the yoke of PNM’s incessantly irresponsible, climate-altering behavior. Reject the rate case. Invest in renewables.
Lyla June Johnston is a Diné/Tsétsêhéstâhese (Navajo/Cheyenne) poet, musician, anthropologist and community organizer with a degree in Environmental Anthropology from Stanford University. She is currently earning a master’s degree in American Indian Education from the University of New Mexico.