Who Will Profit from Native Energy?
LiP Magazine, June 5, 2006
Title: “Native Energy Futures”
Author: Brian Awehali
Student Researchers: Ioana Lupu and Mayra Madrigal
Faculty Evaluator: Dolly Freidel, Ph.D.
Energy on Native American land is becoming big business. According to the Indigenous Environmental Network, 35 percent of the fossil fuel resources in the US are within Indian country. The Department of the Interior estimates that Indian lands hold undiscovered reserves of almost 54 billion tons of coal, 38 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 5.4 billion barrels of oil. Tribal lands also contain enormous amounts of alternative energy. “Wind blowing through Indian reservations in just four northern Great Plains states could support almost 200,000 megawatts of wind power,” Winona LaDuke told Indian Country Today in March 2005, “Tribal landholdings in the southwestern US…could generate enough power to eradicate all fossil fuel burning power plants in the US.”
The questions to be answered now are: what sort of energy will Indian lands produce, who will make that decision, and who will end up benefiting from the production?
According to Theresa Rosier, Counselor to the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, “increased energy development in Indian and Alaska Native communities could help the Nation have more reliable homegrown energy supplies.” This, she says, is “consistent with the President’s National Energy Policy to secure America’s energy future.”
Rosier’s statement conveys quite a lot about how the government and the energy sector intend to market the growing shift away from dependence on foreign energy. The idea that “America’s energy future” should be linked to having “more reliable homegrown energy supplies” can be found in native energy-specific legislation that has already passed into law. What this line of thinking fails to take into account is that Native America is not the same as US America. The domestic “supplies” in question belong to sovereign nations, not to the United States or its energy sector.
So far, government plans to deregulate and step up the development of domestic (native) energy resources is being spun as a way to produce clean, efficient energy while helping Native Americans gain greater economic and tribal sovereignty. Critics charge, however, that large energy companies are simply looking to establish lucrative partnerships with tribal corporations, which are largely free of regulation and federal oversight.
For example, in 2003, the Rosebud Sioux of South Dakota, in partnership with NativeEnergy, LLC, completed the first large-scale native-owned wind turbine in history. The project was billed as a way to bring renewable energy–related jobs and training opportunities to the citizens of this sovereign nation, who are among the poorest in all of North America.
NativeEnergy’s President and CEO Tom Boucher, an energy industry vet, financed the Rosebud Sioux project by selling “flexible emissions standards” created by the Kyoto Protocol. These are the tax-deductible pollution credits from ecologically responsible companies (or in this case, Native American tribes), which can then be sold to polluters wishing to “offset” their carbon dioxide generation without actually reducing their emissions.
Since the Rosebud test case proved successful, NativeEnergy moved forward with plans to develop a larger “distributed wind project,” located on eight different reservations. NativeEnergy also became a majority Indian-owned company in August 2005, when the pro-development Intertribal Council on Utility Policy (COUP) purchased a majority stake in the company on behalf of its member tribes.
The COUP-NativeEnergy purchase just happened to coincide with the passage of the 2005 Energy Policy Act. The act contains a number of native energy–specific provisions in its Title V, many of which set alarming precedents.
Most outrageously, it gave the US government the power to grant rights of way through Indian lands without permission from the tribes—if deemed to be in the strategic interests of an energy-related project. Under the guise of “promoting tribal sovereignty,” the act also released the federal government from liability with regard to resource development, shifting responsibility for environmental review and regulation from the federal to tribal governments. Also, according to the Indigenous Environmental Network, the act “rolls back the protections of…critical pieces of legislation that grassroots indigenous peoples utilize to protect our sacred sites.” Some critics have derided the 2005 act as a fire sale on Indian energy, characterizing various incentives as a broad collection of subsidies (federal handouts) for US energy companies.
America’s native peoples may attain a modicum of energy independence and tribal sovereignty through the development of wind, solar, and other renewable energy infrastructure on their lands. But, according to Brian Awehali, it won’t come from getting into bed with, and becoming indebted to, the very industry currently driving the planet to its doom.
UPDATE BY Brian Awehali
I believe the topic of this article was important and urgent because sometimes all that glitters really is gold, even if the marketing copy says it’s green. The long and utterly predictable history where indigenous peoples and US government and corporate interests are both concerned shouldn’t be forgotten as we enter the brave new green era. Marketing for-profit energy schemes on Indian lands as a means of promoting tribal sovereignty is both ludicrous and offensive, as are “green” development plans intrinsically tied to the extraction of fossil fuels in the deregulated Wild West of Indian Country. Energy companies are only interested in native sovereignty because it means operations on Indian lands are not subject to federal regulation or oversight. This is why I included a discussion in my article about the instructive example of the Alaska tribal corporations and the ways they’ve mutated into multi-billion dollar loophole exploiters. (My brief examination of Alaska tribal corporations drew heavily from an excellent Mother Jones article, “Little Big Companies,” by Michael Scherer). It’s also my belief that the probably well-intentioned idea of “green tags,” carbon offset credits, and market-enabled “carbon neutrality” should be examined very closely: Why are we introducing systems for transferring (or trading) the carbon emissions of “First World” polluters to those who contributed least to global warming? I would argue that this is merely a nice-sounding way for the overdeveloped world to purchase the right to continue its pathologically unsustainable mode of existence, while doing little to address the very grave ecological realities we now face.
It’s very hard to know what the impact of this story was, or to gauge mainstream response to it. In my experience, the so-called mainstream has a difficult time absorbing and understanding Native American issues, not least because this mainstream tends to think of indigenous peoples in North America in historical, rather than contemporary, terms. I am, however, encouraged by the number of journalists and writers who are beginning to ask critical questions about greenwashing, and I see my story as adding to that collective body of work.
For more information about energy policy and its impact on indigenous communities of North America, I recommend visiting the Indigenous Environmental Network (http://www.ienearth.org), and checking out their Native Energy Campaign.