Tribes gamble on coal, despite climate risks
“In every deliberation we must consider the impact on the seventh generation … even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine,” goes the Great Law of the Iroquois. If you embrace liquid coal, however, it is quite safe to say there is only one generation you are thinking of.
“Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms — greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge — has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed — you mark my words — will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA,” goes the Great Law of the Capitalists.
Obviously, thick skin ain’t what it used to be. But greed never goes out of style. E&E News has the sad story ($ub. req’d):
Last week, the Crow Nation announced plans to build a coal-to-liquids plant in Montana that may provide fuel for the Air Force. That followed news of a potential coal-fired power plant on Navajo Nation land in New Mexico.
Now, as many as six coal projects, including some that would produce liquid fuel, are “under consideration” in Montana either on reservations or in nearby locations that could make use of tribal labor and resources, according to Chantel McCormick, an energy development officer for the state. Her remarks echoed a Bush administration official who said Tuesday that several tribes had “expressed interest” recently in building plants that convert coal to diesel or jet fuel.
What’s especially sad is the inevitable lies that must accompany the pursuit of the dirtiest fuel imaginable:
Coal projects are an option for only a handful of the 562 federally recognized tribes and Alaska natives. Of those, coal-to-liquid facilities are potentially appealing because they allow utilizing an energy resource without the entanglement of feeding electricity into the grid … In a statement on July 31, Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. made no secret of the fact that the $3 billion coal-fired generator would bring a jobs boom to the reservation and help the tribe stand on its own financially. The Navajo also are looking to build a 500-megawatt wind farm.
The $7 billion Many Stars Plant on the Crow Nation, slated to open in 2016, initially will produce 50,000 barrels of fuel and create 4,000 construction jobs on the reservation, which has 47 percent unemployment. The Australian-American Energy Co., a partner in the project, plans to assist a tribal college with educational programs.
“We made a decision to pursue this type of clean-coal project because it provides long-term economic and social benefits for our people for many generations to come,” said Crow Chairman Carl Venne.
The company claims that 95 percent of the carbon from the coal-to-liquids plant would be captured and sequestered or used for enhanced-oil recovery. Similarly, supporters of the Desert Rock project argue it will emit much less carbon dioxide than the average coal plant because of its sophisticated technology.
And I claim monkeys will fly out of my butt. If I have said it once I’ve said four or five times, “Capturing CO2 and injecting it into a well to squeeze more oil out of the ground is not real carbon sequestration.”
All of this rhetoric is angering environmental advocates on and off tribal lands, who say that tribes already are experiencing some of the worst impacts of climate change — ranging from water-saturated Alaskan villages to drought-stricken reservations dependent on water and fish — and that fossil fuel development will make matters worse.
“There’s a rift between some tribal leaders who see hope in oil, gas and coal and people who think energy companies are taking advantage of people who are eager for money,” said Kandi Mossett, a campus “climate campaigner” for the Indigenous Environmental Network trying to get tribal colleges to cut their emissions.
An increasing number of tribal conferences dedicated to climate change, like three sponsored this spring by the National Wildlife Federation, are popping up so investors in renewable energy can mingle with American Indian leaders.
Three tribes — the Southern Ute, the Pueblo of Acoma and Campo Kumeyaay Nation — have also joined the Climate Registry, a voluntary reporting system of greenhouse gases. The coal-rich Cheyenne remain aloof.
And some tribes sitting on potential fossil-fuel gold mines — like the Northern Cheyenne in Montana — have avoided jumping into the energy gold wave as a matter of principle.
“The Cheyenne people are living on one of the poorest reservations in the country and yet for over 30 years, they have refused to stripmine their homeland for promises of riches,” states the Web site of Native Action, whose executive director Gail Small is the sister of the tribe’s president.
Yet for most reservations, the process of building wind turbines or erecting solar panels is less profitable than considering coal, oil or gas development. Because tribes are designated as sovereign entities, they can’t benefit directly from the federal tax credits that have spurred renewable projects around the country.
Separate bills in the House and Senate are trying to fix the issue, but have yet to pass, and the fate of renewable tax credits in general remains in doubt.
Various grants from federal agencies offer some assistance for alternative energy projects but typically are inadequate, said Virginia Boylan, a partner and a member of the Indian Tribal Governments Team at the law firm Drinker Biddle.
“Look at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. They don’t have enough roads and housing. Even if they wanted a wind farm, it would be tough to finance it, much less get the electricity on the grid, ” said Boylan.
Still, many tribes are taking small steps to go the renewable route. The Pine Ridge Reservation just constructed a 65-kilowatt wind turbine to help power a radio station with the help of funds from the federal government and organizations such as Honor the Earth.
The Campo Kumeyaay Nation leased land in California so another company could build a wind project, allowing the tribe to collect royalties from the electricity purchased. Other tribes have cut electrical costs by building biomass, wind and solar generators to fire their internal grid.
Then there’s the Nez Perce Tribe, a leader in transforming its farmland to forest so it can sell the acreage as “carbon credits” on the Chicago Climate Exchange. Other tribes — including the Navajo and the Northern Cheyenne — are taking a look at the idea as both a money-making tool and a carbon-cutting mechanism.
“Renewable energy could do more financially for the tribes than gaming,” said Myra Wilensky, tribal lands global warming manager at the National Wildlife Federation.
Native Americans have the same choice the rest of us do — sustainable, clean energy abundance or self-destructive, fossil energy scarcity.