International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management
Third Annual Tribal Energy Policy Roundtable
Tribal Energy Policy: Climate and Technology Challenges

March 18-20, 2008
Denver, Colorado, U.S.A.

Final Report

Key Insights

  • Control of tribal energy resources is the main issue. Tribes are competing with federal, state, and local governments, NGOs, industry, and financial markets for control of their resources.
  • Efforts to curb carbon emissions present both risks to and opportunities for tribal energy development. Collaborative, strategic approaches are required.
  • Indian energy policy should be thought of as something that transcends reservation boundaries and tribal energy resources. Indian energy policy encompasses or is encompassed by tribal human development, community development, and political development among other things.


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:

Ben Hoisington: Now the idea about carbon capture, carbon sequestration, this plant will be carbon-capture ready. When the technology comes along, that is reliable, that is cost effective, this plant has slots already in the design so that we can put this in there. Ideally we've talked to Senator Domenici, we've talked to Udall, we've talked to Bingaman, they would like to see Desert Rock go “first carbon capture, carbon sequestration plant” as a model. But it'll cost over a billion dollars above the projected cost now which is over 3 billion dollars to build. So unless we get some heavy subsidies, it wouldn't make this plant worth building at that point in time. Transcripts, p. 106.

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.

David Lester: I think one of the things I'd like to say to lend some perspective is that when you cross Navajo, it looks like you've got a lot of land and few people. But it's not an unoccupied territory.

Ben Hoisington: That's true.

David Lester: Every square inch of Navajo Nation belongs to somebody at Navajo, and that activity that they put that land to, is valuable to the people that use that land, whether they're sheepherding, or other uses. And to suggest that Navajo could be used as a solar energy colony for the rest of the country is going right back to the old [neocolonial] model that Navajo could be the coal mining source. Transcripts, p. 126.

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.

Frederick White : But you know those are some of the opposition really comes internally and then you've got the ones of these different jurisdictions. [T]here's 110 different communities all over Navajo, and a lot of these folks are managers, owners of these areas. And through the years they're gaining more . . . decision making and control over these properties to determine their own governance and their own direction, their own plans. . . . [T]hat's where there's so strong of a clash today between central government , Window Rock, the BIA, and the control that comes, the mentality that comes through Park Service, BIA, all these federal agencies, including the Navajo components similar to these entities. Transcripts, p. 128, 130.

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.

Richard Holman: Now along with the fact that we haven't developed any new energy facilities in some time, that creates another problem for us, and that is we haven't created demand for workers in that arena as well. So we have no pipeline of people going into the energy industry and that means we have no pipeline at any level. Transcripts, p. 26.

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.

Mari-Angeles Major-Sosias : Quite a few of you mentioned the human resources issue. It is a huge issue for AREVA. We're looking at hiring -- we would need to hire for the whole company several hundred new engineers just in North America on a monthly basis if our strategic plan actually goes as we wish. So scientists, engineers . . . and one thing that AREVA does very well is anywhere in the world that AREVA goes, we like to use the local resources, local companies, local contractors, local people -- and training them and giving them skills that will be transferable. Transcripts, p. 120.

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.

Merv Tano: I have a follow-up question, Richard. Some of the work that I've done up in Alaska, some of the work up in places like South Dakota, North Dakota -- you've got a workforce over there who may not be co-located with a plant. But I look at the kind of opportunities that they have to be trained, in the same way perhaps that these hot shot firefighters have been trained -- very skilled people who travel from Montana to Arizona, or California to fight fires, and then when the season's over they're back home in Montana or North Dakota. Now my sense is that the workforce formula in a lot of these industries, lend themselves and will lend themselves more in the future to this kind of, if you will, casual workforce. So that somebody doesn't have to relocate permanently to Atlanta or to some place in Pennsylvania , but they could go down there for a month or two months at a time for some of these regularly scheduled outages, etc. Is that a possibility?

Richard Holman: Very much so. In fact there are companies that provide outage services all over the U.S. and people in some cases do work six months out of the year going to outages, and the other six months of the year they go live where they came from. So it is very possible, and in many cases in the nuclear industry is actually the norm for those people who are working outages. You do have to have some base load complement of people who are working at the plant, obviously, to operate and maintain it on a day-to-day basis, but those who construct and those who provide outage services absolutely can move from place to place.

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.

Linda Sue Warner: I think too, Merv, as we talk about this and it sounds real interdisciplinary but almost to me it's sounding like [we're talking about] people who have a degree or are already in the field, [so] we really can't divorce our self from the business of lifelong learning and the pipeline. . . . [and everyone needs to] be at the table . . . [T]he business of education and then our friends, the economic developer person, those things are so closely tied to the kind of stuff we're talking about that it needs to continue to be interdisciplinary and lifelong. Transcripts, p. 248-249.

David Conrad: When CERT had an internship it was not just about understanding the issues, it's about managing your career and being able to affect change by skillfully managing where you go and why and how to develop your skills to be the most effective person that you can be and still serve the community. The Institute is seeing all the players and seeing places where . . . and they can have a group of interns that they track over multiple years and try to do multiple placements. I was a summer intern at CERT as a graduate student, and then after that final year of graduate school I was placed at a year-long internship in the Department of Energy headquarters on defense nuclear waste cleanup site. And that was a real eye opening experience for a number of reasons, not just the issues but how the DOE works internally. That was . . . you think it's monolithic and you think that people don't do anything, or how can so many people be doing nothing and justify a career, but it's educational on multiple levels. And then after that CERT hiring me and moving me to Nez Perce was another great eye opening and rounding experience. I mean you're not just going to be a fed or I could have left that track and become a contractor, supporting DOE or to become a fed, but that wasn't what I was interested in and wouldn't have made me the most effective person I could have been. Transcripts, p. 248.

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:

  • An absolute knowledge of the political, cultural, social, and economic underpinnings of the tribe.
  • Familiarity with, and experience in, a number of diverse related disciplines (such as energy technologies, law, social sciences, finance, environmental science, and communications) and experience in interagency operations such as working with different government agencies, the private sector, NGOs, and international partners; and,
  • Competence in crisis action and long-term strategic planning.

Establishing this cadre will require a professional development program with the following components:

  • An interdisciplinary education program, probably operated by a consortium of tribal and non-tribal colleges and universities and organizations such as the International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management and Council of Energy Resource Tribes, specifically designed to teach interagency skills.
  • Internships and fellowships that include tribal, federal agency, private sector, and international assignments in which individuals can practice and hone their skills. These assignments should be at the “operational” level where the interns and fellows learn how to make things happen, not just set policies.

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.

David Conrad: Also you get defined and your interests get defined for you and I remember we were trying to, at Nez Perce, be involved in the weapons plutonium disposition dialogue and DOE said weapons are not Indian issues. Nuclear weapons are not Nez Perce issues, so “no.” You can't have a dialogue. You can't have a workshop on weapons grade plutonium. We continued to push and we eventually got one, but it was part of the larger stakeholder effort to deal with that issue and so we were able to get . . . think the League of Women Voters got a grant to do one and a few others and Nez Perce got a grant to do one. But otherwise you get defined and your interests get defined for you. It's not where you want to be. Transcripts, p. 246.

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.

Roger Taylor : [T]here's a whole portfolio of [renewable] technologies today that are simply “oh, those are not ready. We can't compete.” . . . If we wanted to move wind out of the Dakotas to Los Angeles and New York , we don't have the transmission capacity to do that. So there's some really big questions out there, and which direction we choose, whether we're going to continue to invest in large centralized plants. Transcripts, p. 54.

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.

  • Tribes should not fight their battles alone. Tribal organizations such as the Council of Energy Resource Tribes were established by tribes to take collective action. Tribes and their commercial partners should empower and finance such organizations to design and implement intertribal strategies.
  • Proposed projects should be defined to be just one component of an overall tribal energy development strategy that should include, a suite of renewable technologies (either on the proponent's lands or other tribal lands), land use regulations to provide for protection of sacred sites, carbon sequestration, wildlife habitat, protection of traditional foods, fiber, and medicines, greening the project's supply chain, etc.