In a steady rain, more than a dozen Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe members protested Monday outside the New York City offices of Avenue Capital Group, a private equity firm that wants to purchase the coal-burning Navajo Generating Station (NGS) in Arizona.
They had traveled from their homes in northern Arizona to oppose the private equity firm’s proposed acquisition of NGS, the largest coal-fired power plant in the western United States, and to advocate for clean forms of energy in the Four Corners region.
The facility — which spews tons of the most hazardous air pollutants — was on its way to shutting down in 2019. But Avenue Capital Group’s interest in purchasing a majority stake in the plant has brought new life to the highly polluting facility.
The current operator of NGS — the Salt River Project — has suggested keeping the coal plant open past 2019 will result in losses exceeding $130 million annually. Avenue Capital Group likely could profit from its purchase of NGS only through some combination of federal subsidies and cuts to jobs, health, and safety protections, experts say.
The delegation traveled to Manhattan to request a meeting with Avenue Capital Group co-founder and CEO Marc Lasry, who also is a co-owner of the Milwaukee Bucks basketball franchise and a billionaire Democratic Party donor.
Earlier this year, Navajo groups sent two letters to Lasry, inviting him and his staff to visit the plant and discuss the environmental and financial risks of keeping the plant running. When the groups did not receive a response, they decided to take their concerns to Lasry’s office doorstep on Park Avenue.
A couple members of the delegation entered Avenue Capital Group’s headquarters to request a meeting with officials from the investment firm. The request was denied.
Avenue Capital Group officials have been meeting with official Navajo Nation tribal leaders on a regular basis over the past six months to negotiate keeping the plant open. But the investment firm has refused to meet with Navajo community groups, such as the ones who traveled to New York City on Monday, who favor clean energy over the continued operation of NGS.
After being told Avenue Capital Group officials would not meet with them, the Navajo protesters deployed two large banners in front of the office building. For several hours, the Navajo delegation stood with umbrellas chanting, “Coal is dead” and “Avenue Capital, we want renewables.”
“I believe that our physical presence, along with our signs and banners made the action at Avenue Capital Group headquarters successful,” Nadine Narindrankura, a Navajo Nation member who attended the protest, said in an email to ThinkProgress.
Narindrankura, a member of Tó Nizhóni Ání, a Navajo community group, said opponents of the NGS are hoping that through this action “we will find groups and others here in New York City to help us in our efforts to discourage Avenue Capital Group from purchasing NGS.”
In an email to ThinkProgress on Tuesday, an Avenue Capital Group spokesperson said, “We have not made a decision regarding the NGS project. As such, we do not have additional comment at this time.”
In their letters to Lasry earlier this year, the Navajo community members noted that he has shown “unwavering support of Democratic priorities” and has been “an equally staunch opponent” of President Donald Trump.
“You were a major and trusted fundraiser for both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton during their presidential campaigns. And your disdain for Donald Trump is no secret, as you have openly refused to let your NBA team stay at Trump-branded hotels when on the road,” leaders with the Navajo groups — Diné CARE and Tó Nizhóni Ání — wrote in a June 8 letter to Lasry.
The Navajo community members said they are concerned that Lasry’s interest in purchasing NGS allies him with “Mr. Trump’s misleading and misguided agenda” in favor of coal over renewable energy.
In 2017 the Trump administration stepped in and made saving the coal plant, located on tribal land in Arizona, a top priority of the president’s coal-first energy policy. The Trump administration wanted to ensure the 2,250-megawatt Navajo Generating Station — the seventh biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the country — had a post-2019 future.
The Trump administration prioritized keeping the 44-year-old coal plant running because the federal government owns a stake in the generating facility. The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation, primarily a water management agency, oversees the government’s 24.3 percent ownership stake in the plant.
Lasry’s Avenue Capital Group owns Middle River Power, a company that has more than 2,200 megawatts of power generation assets in operation or development. After several months of researching the economics of purchasing a majority ownership stake in the old and inefficient Navajo Generating Station, Avenue Capital Group Group and Middle River Power decided the acquisition made financial sense.
Middle River Power has a track record of buying distressed energy businesses and wringing value from them. The company recently presented a plan that would keep the Navajo Generating Station open by running it at a reduced capacity during off-peak demand.
Keeping the plant running also would be good news to Peabody Energy, which owns a nearby coal mine on the nearby Black Mesa plateau of the Four Corners region. The mine is the sole coal supplier to the power plant.
The Navajo community group leaders believe Middle River Power will not be able to make NGS profitable without harming members of the Navajo Nation through layoffs and pay cuts.
“You may be betting that the same dynamics — of preying on distressed assets — that have allowed Avenue to capitalize on weak oil and gas companies are in play for NGS,” they wrote in their letter to Lasry. “That is not the case. The issues facing Peabody and utilities that burn coal, as many, many analysts have noted, are structural, not cyclical. Coal is not going to bounce back. And that means the sooner the Navajo Nation can switch to a clean energy economy, the better.”
In their letter to Lasry, the Navajo community group leaders emphasized that decades after the massive NGS began operations, 18,000 homes on the Navajo Nation still don’t have electricity, even though the plant is located on tribal land. Natural springs and streams that once provided water to the Navajo people have been sucked dry by the operations of the power plant and the Peabody coal mine, they said.
“Our very existence is bound to the fate of our land, water and air,” Nicholas Ashley, an activist with Tó Nizhóni Ání who attended Monday’s protest, said in a statement. “The financial capital of the world needs to know that Diné people will no longer be putting our bodies and our homelands on the line for multinational corporations.”