FARMINGTON — Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly made it clear that investing in energy was a top priority for the tribe during his "State of the Nation" speech.

Shelly spoke Monday during the first day of the Navajo Nation Council's spring session, which lasts through Friday in Window Rock, Ariz., the Nation's capital. The first half of his speech focused on the tribe's commitment to energy, which clearly was of the greatest concern to him.

"The energy market is now turning to natural-gas power plants and clean coal technology. We must explore our possibilities for both sectors of energy," Shelly said.

Shelly spoke in reference to the ongoing controversies surrounding the proposed purchase by the tribe of BHP Billiton's Navajo Mine near Farmington, and the proposed lease extension of the Navajo Generating Station near Page, Ariz. The Navajo Mine is a coal mine, and the Navajo Generating Station, a coal-fueled power plant.

The mine purchase and lease extension together will preserve thousands of jobs and provide millions of dollars in annual income, Shelly said.

"We talk of self-determination and sovereignty, yet we squabble over the details and jeopardize the ability of these hard working families to determine for themselves what is best for their families," Shelly said.

While many employees of both the mine and the plant showed up to listen to Shelly's comments and support his sentiment, according to Shiprock Council Delegate Russell Begaye, not everyone agreed with the president's point of view.

Some took issue with "details" they say have not been addressed or have been disregarded.


"I think a lot of people are blindly saying, Yeah,'" Begaye said.

For instance, Begaye questioned the quality of coal at the Navajo Mine, how much of it was left, and the quality of the machinery and equipment at the mine — questions that he feels should be answered if the tribe is going to purchase the mine.

He also questioned whether the tribe had accurately considered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's efforts to crack down on energy-industry pollution, and the likelihood that those efforts would continue to tighten in the future.

"We'll have to put a lot of revenue back into the management. It's like a gamble," Begaye said.

It is a gamble that the delegates time and again have considered, without reaching consensus. The tribe's Naabik'íyátí Committee, which is the committee that precedes the final Navajo Nation Council vote, opposed the legislation for the Navajo Generating Station's lease extension.

The Navajo Nation Council just last month decided to approve another study on the Navajo Mine, to help them further understand what kind of investment it would be making.

"There's been enough council delegates asking the same questions we're asking," said Lori Goodman, board member for Diné Care, a group focused on the Nation's environmental issues.

Even some of the people who work or have worked in the industry challenged the president's message.

"Navajo Mine — the equipment's all worn out," said Herman Hunt, a former employee of the mine. "It's like buying a used 1930s car. It's not worth a penny."

Hunt, who worked at the mine from 1990 to 2001, said the future was dim for anyone hoping to make money off coal in coming years.

"Who are they going to be selling coal to?" Hunt said, noting that many coal-fueled power plants have started to close down portions of their operation. "They are going to be standing in the middle of nowhere trying to sell coal, and no one is going to buy it."

Aside from investing in energy, Shelly addressed a number of less controversial topics that the tribe dealt with just this year, including the hard freeze that burst pipes leaving thousands of Navajo families without running water for weeks. In response, the tribe used new legislation to directly request federal funding for the emergency.

He also noted the imminent opening of the tribe's next casino, Twin Arrows Navajo Casino. The casino, located in Flagstaff, Ariz., also will be a four-star hotel resort and will open May 23.

To close his speech, Shelly reminded listeners of the "uncertain fiscal climate" and the long-term effects of decisions made today. 

"As a government, we must evolve to keep our people engaged, but more importantly, we must evolve to protect out people, our language, our culture, and our way of life," Shelly said. "Change protects the sanctity of being Diné."

Jenny Kane can be reached at; 505-564-4636. Follow her on Twitter