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Who Really Loses When America Phases Out Natural Gas?

Bright young aspiring oil executives have more options than people trapped in a town with no jobs.

David McNew/Getty Images

On Sunday, The New York Times published a piece profiling a handful of recent college grads, all outfitted with varying forms of geology or engineering degrees and struggling to find a foothold in the natural gas industry. With color-matched portraits of the hopeful oil executives set alongside glamor shots of drilling machinery, the piece was presumably designed to provoke empathy for these young, well-educated twentysomethings deprived of six-figure fossil fuel salaries. Judging by the Twitter reaction, it seems to have failed gloriously. Instead, the Times piece became the weekend’s most rewarding hate-read, with readers mostly celebrating the Uber driver who reportedly asked one of the subjects on the way to an industry banquet, “Did you ever hear of a solar panel?”

But however clumsily, the piece asks a useful, even necessary question: What is going to happen when natural gas goes belly up? While the transition away from extractive sources of energy will clearly leave scores of recent grads in need of a career pivot, these are not the people most threatened by either a sudden economic crash, à la 2020, or a more gradual phaseout of natural gas. The Times gets sympathy points for having the right thought; it was just asking the wrong people.

The easiest and most obvious comparison point for the downfall of natural gas is that of coal. As coal collapsed as a major energy production model, the white-collar executives who’d filled their wallets were, like everyone else, out of work and, unlike everyone else, still quite wealthy. But neither they nor the incoming graduates with coal-related experience and research under their belts were the most exposed. While the student loans incurred for their degrees remained an unfair financial albatross to these and thousands of other graduates, they ultimately had options. For many others whose workplace shuts down, those options typically begin and end with what’s nearby.

A week before Christmas, the Navajo Nation toppled the three smokestacks that towered over the Navajo Generating Station for the past four decades. The NGS was part of a broader campaign in the 1970s that claimed the extractive industry would serve as an economic propellant for the surrounding tribal nations—including the Hopi Tribe, whose lands are crucially located in the center Navajo Nation. The reality, of course, was murkier.

In 1974, Congress redrew the Hopi and Navajo nation borders to placate Peabody Energy executives eyeing a spot to build new coal operations to service burgeoning white communities in Phoenix and Southern California. NGS and the Kayenta Mine, a surface coal-mining operation on Navajo land, quickly became the region’s main economic drivers. By 2012, the two operations constituted a quarter of the Navajo Nation’s revenue and over half of the Hopi Tribe’s, with the vast majority of employees being Native workers. Similar to NGS and Kayenta, the Mohave Generating Station, situated on the Nevada-Arizona border five hours west of NGS, quickly welded itself to the tribes’ economic backbones while draining their aquifers.

“Kids coming out of high school looking for work—they could either find a job at the coal mine or join the Army and go off to Vietnam,” said Andrew Curley on a recent episode of the podcast A Matter of Degrees, hosted by Julian Brave Noisecat. “Then, over time, they start to identify with that work, and they see that the money that they’re earning working in the coal mine is helping them to not only take care of their families, but their relatives.… It’s seen as this benefit.”

This is not unique to Diné or Hopi communities. As I wrote last fall, looking at recent acts of Indigenous resistance to natural gas pipelines, the first carrot that extractive industries dangle in front of economically distressed communities is the promise of a steady income. Too often, it is used to excuse the environmental and cultural damage enacted by these operations: The industry’s supporters rightfully point out that if these high-employment operations are removed, the surrounding community will suffer.

With the official closure of the NGS in November 2019, the Navajo Nation was instantly staring at a budget shortfall of $30–$50 million, forcing it to partially fund its 2020 budget via its reserve coffers. The Hopi Tribe, as well as the City of Page, Arizona, were also hit hard by the closure. And for the former NGS employees, the option to pick up and move off the reservation to make a living was a nonstarter. This left many in untenable situations like that of Jerry Williams, the president of the Navajo Nation’s LeChee Chapter and an NGS employee of 38 years. Williams told NPR in 2018 that, being seven years short of retirement and his wife not wanting to leave their home on the rez, he had to take the company’s offer for an employee transfer and make the 300-mile commute to and from Phoenix every weekend.

This is not just a problem for Indian Country. Many once-booming coal towns across the country have gone bust, leaving behind legacies of environmental destruction and impoverished conditions for the people who call those places home. In Rock Springs, Wyoming, the constant boom-to-bust cycle of the Bridger power plant molded a generation of people who felt powerless over their future from a young age. “I think a lot of people in Rock Springs ignore those types of questions,” Nate Martin told The New Republic in December. “They latch onto the economy that’s there—the jobs that are there—and they ride it like a horse. You have the stereotype of the rugged individual that’s prevalent here in Wyoming, but in reality, the Western mining town has no control over its own fate.”

As Earther managing editor Brian Kahn tweeted in response to the New York Times piece, it’s easy to dunk on the supposedly wronged college grads and the paper itself for believing that the death of natural gas is “a slap in the faceto them and them alone. It’s much more difficult, though, to reckon with the fact that as the natural gas industry slowly winds down, the craters it will leave in communities that depend on it will have to be proactively addressed.

These communities and the politicians representing them are beginning to recognize this. In his initial campaign ad for Louisiana’s 2nd congressional district, Gary Chambers elucidated this point well, saying of the district’s natural gas employers, “If we marry our state to one industry, we are married to their prosperity or demise.” But the truth is, too many places are already married to natural gas, just as too many places were married to coal. The most difficult and necessary work won’t be helping a grad student with a petroleum engineering degree pivot to geothermal. It will be fighting for and helping to rebuild entire towns and communities that have been sold the lie that their most useful purpose is to mine, drill, and pump.