Read our ED’s Recent Op-Ed on Peabody’s Bankruptcy

Peabody Bankruptcy: Coal is No Stepping Stone

By Jihan Gearon

Peabody Energy filing for bankruptcy last week may come as little surprise — the company’s share price has been in a nose dive for five years. But make no mistake, this news from the world’s biggest coal corporation is a big deal. For those who’ve been slow or unwilling to acknowledge energy shifting off coal, this bankruptcy should be a wake-up call. It’s an economic marker as stark on the energy landscape as Peabody’s Kayenta strip mine on Navajo Black Mesa.

What’s the marker? Peabody cites “unprecedented industry downturn,” and it’s filing follows bankruptcies by Arch, Alpha, Patriot and other coal companies. It also comes as coal industry attempts to export more U.S. coal to Asia have hit roadblocks in the form of community opposition on the Pacific coast and sagging demand overseas.

And then there’s the simply massive momentum toward clean energy generation. Investment in solar and wind now outpaces fossil fuels by two to one globally. In the U.S., states are increasingly in a race to capture both renewables manufacturing and generation market share. Last November, there was a day when wind power generated 67 percent of Xcel Energy’s electricity produced in Colorado, and plans are underway to add a 600-megawatt wind farm on the state’s eastern plains. Iowa now generates 31 percent of its electricity from wind. And solar’s share of electric generation around the world has doubled seven times since 2000, as solar costs have plummeted.

So who’s missing, or ignoring, the memo? A few weeks ago, the Heritage Foundation and the Texas Public Policy Foundation pushed out a video featuring Navajos as part of their propaganda efforts against the Obama Administration and its Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon pollution from power plants. These are right-wing think-tanks with ties to the Koch brothers, so it’s no surprise that they’re pro-fossil fuels and campaigning against measures to reduce coal pollution. But to see an expensive propaganda film by outsiders asserting that Navajos stay the course on coal just as the industry is crumbling – that’s hard to stomach. America’s indigenous populations have faced exploitation by outsiders for a long, long time. This recent effort by groups backed by the Koch brothers shows how exploitation continues today.

Some Navajo officials try to portray the Nation’s recent moves to buy the Navajo coal mine (when BHP Billiton wanted out) and to buy into coal-fired Four Corners Power Plant (as El Paso Electric exits) as stepping stones toward eventual transition to Navajo-owned clean energy. Solar and wind production that benefits Navajo communities and supports Navajo families is what we need, but getting there by buying into coal doesn’t look like a stepping stone – it looks like quick sand. It’s instability, liability and risk. It’s no coincidence that anyone looking to sell coal assets today is mostly not finding buyers.

At the grassroots level there have been years of hard work by Navajo nonprofit groups to both research and demonstrate the viability of an economy on Navajo Nation that prioritizes sustainability and justice, including solar, wool and other local industries. But leadership support is needed. Investment and priority and urgency are needed. The longer the delay, the deeper the commitment to a sinking coal industry and market, the more we’re weighted down rather than bolstered economically. The Peabody bankruptcy is just the latest and starkest in a long line of unmistakable reminders.

Jihan Gearon is Executive Director of Black Mesa Water Coalition, based in Flagstaff.

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