Environmentalists, the state of New Mexico and some Navajos have voiced concerns about the $3 billion Desert Rock Energy Project, saying a third coal-fired plant in the Four Corners region would compromise air quality, human health and the environment.
The tribe and Houston-based Sithe Global LLC have partnered to build the 1,500-megawatt plant, which they say will be one of the cleanest coal-burning plants in the nation even without capturing carbon emissions and storing them.
Still, Shirley said the Navajo Nation would be able to establish itself as a leader in clean coal if the U.S. Department of Energy awards a grant.
The Navajos are competing for $450 million available for carbon capture projects.
The tribe could find out in November whether it will receive any funding.
"The president is extremely hopeful," Shirley spokesman George Hardeen said.
Desert Rock developers say about half of the plant's carbon dioxide emissions could be captured using the technology. The plant is expected to produce about 10.9 million tons of carbon dioxide per year.
Critics who have tried to stall the Desert Rock Energy Project at nearly every turn said carbon capture technology would not do enough to quell their concerns about the plant's impact on the region.
"You still have a whopping problem here. That's still a vast source of new carbon dioxide and you've got mercury and ozone," said Mike Eisenfeld of San Juan Citizens Alliance.
Eisenfeld called the grant application a "disingenuous ploy" to keep the project going.
The project suffered a setback when a federal appeals board ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency back to the drawing board on the plant's air permit.
The agency must consider whether Desert Rock will be outfitted with the best technology to control emissions. It also will reassess limits for particulate matter emissions, analyze methods for controlling hazardous emissions and finish consulting with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about endangered species issues.
The process could take months and possibly another round of public comment.
Shirley said the tribe is not giving up on developing Desert Rock. He called it the Navajos' most important economic development project.
"It will provide thousands of good jobs for our people and fund almost one-third of the Navajo Nation's annual operating budget," he said. "It is a key to our saving self, to ending our dependence on the federal government and to regaining our independence as a nation and a people."
Shirley said one good thing that comes from the EPA reviewing the air permit is that the agency now has the opportunity to consider the potential for using carbon capture and storage at Desert Rock.
He also took a jab at the project's critics, saying they are more interested in stopping the use of coal in the U.S. than in having Desert Rock be the most environmentally sound plant it can be.
Eisenfeld countered that environmentalists want the Navajos to be successful in their economic ventures but to consider renewable energy rather than a coal-fired plant.