International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management
March 18-20, 2008
Climate change, thinning ice caps, melting permafrost, Kyoto, the nuclear renaissance, carbon sequestration, smart cars, smart highways, smart buildings, biofuels, nano-films and nano-coatings, carbon trading—these are but a few of the issues that pepper discussions of tribal energy and development policy today. Shapers of tribal energy and development policy are confronted with a range of voices offering often simplistic and contradictory advice. Disappointingly, what should have been at once the stimulus for introspection and the framework for rationalizing tribal energy policy development, the Tribal Energy Resource Agreement, has been viewed by many within and without Indian country as simply the key to the expeditious unlocking of tribal energy resources. TERA discussions have been reduced to the mere mechanistic parsing of regulatory requirements.
The International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management conducted a roundtable entitled “Tribal Energy Policy: Climate and Technology Challenges” on March 18-20, 2008. The roundtable brought together tribal and federal decision-makers, industry representatives and academics to identify the systems, institutions, and programs that Indian tribes should be establishing or enhancing to plan and carry out energy resource development strategies to address the impacts of climate change in Indian Country.
The Question of Control
The roundtable started off with an observation regarding Indian energy development, that is, that government agencies, private energy developers, public utilities commissions, utilities, financial institutions, and NGOs, to a greater or lesser degree, all claim standing to shape tribal energy development and energy policies. And to a greater or lesser degree, they all do shape tribal energy development decisions. A. David Lester, Executive Director, Council of Energy Resource Tribes reinforced this notion by setting out some of the history of energy development in Indian Country. He cited the example of the Navajo coal mines which were the brainchild of Stuart Udall and said that up until the passage of the 1982 Indian Mineral Development Act and the Federal Oil and Gas Royalty Management Act, the Secretary of the Interior was only authorized to approve non-Indian companies to develop tribal energy resources. And only federal inspectors were allowed in tribal oil and gas fields.
Another example of non-tribal control over tribal energy resources was provided by Ben Hosington, Project Administrator of the Diné Power Authority's Desert Rock Project, when he stated:
Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico has opposed the Desert Rock project saying that current plans for a proposed coal-fired power plant in the Four Corners area would be a step in the wrong direction.
Yet another example of attempts to shape tribal energy development is the question often raised by environmental NGOs and academicians, “If Indians are so concerned about the environment, why don't Indians just put up wind and solar farms instead of developing their coal, oil and gas, and uranium resources?” That the question grossly misapprehends both the essence and the dimensions of the problem is of no import to those who believe that Indian tribes should behave as these non-Indians believe and not as they themselves behave.
But it is not only from external sources that challenges to proposed tribal energy development projects arise. For example, In January of 2008, Dine Citizens Against Ruining our Environment (Dine CARE) released an Alternative Energy Study to Desert Rock that discusses potential solar and wind alternatives that could result in sound Navajo Nation economic and environmental policies. Other indigenous grassroots organizations including Dooda Desert Rock are opposing the Desert Rock project. However, some more fundamental changes are occurring in tribal governance, e.g., decentralization. This phenomenon is perhaps most pronounced in the Navajo Nation which underwent a government restructuring that devolved much authority to local chapters.
The Human Dimension
But another way of exercising tribal control over energy is to use a much more expansive definition of tribal energy and tribal energy policy. Heretofore Indian energy has generally been defined by the Indian energy resource, e.g., coal, oil, wind or uranium. The roundtable participants suggested that tribes need to start viewing Indian energy as something that transcends the resource and borders so that as we deal with energy development, we need to think about the entire fuel cycle, supply chain, and workforce to see how those can be integrated into overall tribal economic, community, and human development, community development efforts.
A surge in power plant construction and power project planning in addition to the general need to build new infrastructure has driven up the demand for engineers.
It was also pointed out that renewable energy can be a significant source of job creation. For example, a 40 million gallon ethanol plant creates 1,400 construction jobs and 40 people to run the facility. In addition, the multiplier effect on other jobs in the community can often exceed direct employment. For example, the same ethanol plant described above could generate 4,500 local jobs and $10 million in local wages due to multiplier effect. In comparison with fossil fuels, renewable energy also tends to produce more wealth that remains in the local economy.
There are two main reasons why renewable energy technologies offer an economic advantage: (1) they are labor-intensive, so they generally create more jobs per dollar invested than conventional electricity generation technologies, and (2) they use primarily indigenous resources, so most of the energy dollars can be kept at home.
Building 5,900 MW of renewable energy capacity would lead to the equivalent of 28,000 year-long construction jobs and 3,000 permanent operations and maintenance jobs. Over thirty years of operation, these new plants would create 120,000 person-years of employment.
These notions were supported by Mari-Angeles Major-Sosias of AREVA.
However, at present realizing these opportunities for increased employment occurs only if the energy facility is located on or near Indian reservations. The following exchange between Mervyn Tano of the International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management and Richard Holman of the Idaho National Laboratory provides some insight as to means by which the prevailing paradigm might be tweaked to the advantage of a tribal workforce.
To meet challenges of this magnitude, workforce development has to be conceptualized more comprehensively than in the past. The Diné Power Authority's experience with labor unions, businesses, educational institutions, and government has so far been disjoined, but there is potential for creating a closer alignment among these interests and between what is learned in the classroom and what is needed in the workplace. A further challenge is to organize the tribal workforce to provide casual outage and construction services.
However, if the experiences related by the tribal roundtable participants are typical, the development of tribal energy resources is now taking place in a new strategic, carbon-neutral reality that will require a segment of the workforce composed of other than technicians or scientists and engineers for which so many schools including the tribal colleges and universities are gearing up. Successful tribal energy resource development today is less about science and technology than it is about conflict—internal, external, political, legal, psychological, international, and otherwise.
So regardless of the proposed energy development, but especially with large, complex, and complicated, carbon-based projects such as the Diné Power Authority's Desert Rock Project and the Crow Nation's coal-to-liquids project, the tribes need to identify, nurture, and team with friends and allies. In short, climate change and the responses thereto have created a new environment characterized by persistent conflict and in which the old development paradigms falter if not fail. To operate in this new environment, to counter campaigns of disinformation, and to create a “common space” where disparate organizations, governments, and interests can have an opportunity to engage in the discourse they believe necessary to bring about sustainable energy development will require a cadre of professionals skilled in interdisciplinary, interagency approaches that can adapt quickly to new challenges and to unexpected circumstances, and that will be proactive, not reactive, and anticipates threats and opportunities before they emerge.
These, and similar comments by other roundtable participants, indicate that the professionals tribes need to lead tribal energy resource development should have three essential attributes:
Establishing this cadre will require a professional development program with the following components:
Identifying the right organizations, creating the connectivity and accreditations, and ensuring that promising tribal leaders are recruited for the program should be a priority.
Conclusion: Making Tribal Energy Tribal
Historically, tribal energy resource development has never been tribal. It has been only of late that the Southern Ute Tribe broke that pattern of neo-colonial exploitation of the tribal energy resource by owning its production and facilities. But even in the case of the Southern Ute Tribe, the energy resources are exported and value added off the reservation. Indian lands have been, and remain today, energy colonies of the greater U.S. society.
The impediments to the deployment of renewable energy technologies identified by the roundtable participants included: cost, lack of transmission capacity, and lack of capital. But Roger Taylor of the National Renewable Laboratory characterized the cost arguments against deploying renewable technologies as grounded in the issue of base load or distributed power.
Herein lies the ambiguity that often color discussions of tribal energy policy. How do Indian tribes define their energy policy—“Do Indian tribes want to use the large scale development of their energy resources as a driver of economic, political, and social self-sufficiency?”; “Do Indian tribes want to use their energy resources to achieve energy-self sufficiency as a foundation for economic, political, and social self-sufficiency?”; or is it both?
As Roger Taylor points out, the absence of transmission capacity and capital are insurmountable impediments if a tribe plans to export electrons. It is a negligible problem if those electrons are used on the reservation by the tribe or the businesses it builds or attracts. On the other hand, some tribes or some tribal communities may not want the increases in population and concomitant social issues that accompany the commercialization of the reservation.
Whatever option the tribe chooses, it seems clear that the emergent carbon-neutral environment in which tribal energy resource development will now take place demands a different strategy. Mega carbon fueled projects like the Navajo Nation's Desert Rock Project and the Crow Nation's coal-to-liquids project are expensive, time-consuming, and politically divisive. Tribes cannot afford to have these projects defined either by itself or by others, simply as a “Navajo Nation mine-mouth power plant” or a “Crow Nation coal to liquids plant.” To do so hamstrings the tribe. It can argue that the technology emits less carbon than similar projects. It can argue the need for jobs and revenue. And it can argue sovereignty. But these arguments are unlikely to win over the project opponents.
In an earlier tribal energy policy roundtable, participants agreed that generally, for Indian tribes and tribal decision-makers, climate change issues should be considered to be part of the larger challenge of tribal development and should be very seldom considered separately if they are considered at all. The sense was that tribal decision-making on climate policies will be more effective when they are embedded within broader strategies designed to make tribal development paths more socially, economically, environmentally, culturally, and politically appropriate. However, it would be foolhardy to ignore carbon.
The challenge for Indian tribes, like the Navajo Nation, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Crow Nation and others with economies dependent on the development of their fossil fuel resources, is to define their energy policy and to describe how proposed projects are socially, economically, environmentally, culturally, and politically sustainable. Based on the roundtable discussions, the following may be ways of demonstrating sustainability.