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Native Americans, Renewable Energy and Environmental Justice

| Monday August 19th, 2013 | 1 Comment
Credit: Daily Kos

Southwestern Native Americans lead 50-Mile March to Move Beyond Coal. Credit: Daily Kos

Around the nation many organizations have zeroed in on the nexus where renewable energy development meets environmental justice – renewables on tribal lands.

Marginalized and struggling to address a range of socioeconomic and environmental problems, the 566 Native American tribes recognized by the federal government as eligible to receive services from the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs are increasingly looking to leverage and capitalize on their green energy resources. And, in contrast to past experiences with energy resource development, they’re looking to exert a greater degree of autonomy and earn a greater share of the benefits in doing so.

Just last week, the Moapa Band of Paiutes announced plans to develop as much as 1.5 gigawatts (GW) worth of solar energy projects on tribal lands in Clark County, Nevada. This time around, they will not only receive lease payments for use of their land, as they do for a 350-MW solar power project – the first to be approved by the Department of Interior on Native American tribal lands, but they are taking a majority equity stake in an initial new project – a 250-MW solar PV facility. Local hiring, direct and indirect knock-on economic effects and revenue from selling power to electric utilities across the Southwest will add additional economic benefit.

Will renewable energy revise the legacy of energy resource development on Native American lands?

The potential benefits of renewable energy development on Native American tribal lands seem clear. Representing two percent of U.S. land, Native American tribal lands hold an estimated five percent of national renewable energy resources, according to a comprehensive study commissioned by the Department of Energy Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs undertaken by the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL).

Moreover, renewable energy development on tribal lands – whether small-scale and locally distributed or large-scale for wider distribution – may give Native American tribes a long sought after leg up and go a long way towards resolving deep seated socioeconomic and environmental ills – including lack of access to reliable sources of electricity and clean water – and in a way that blends seamlessly with their own cultural traditions and philosophy. Whether or not this potential is realized is an issue in and of itself, however.

Renewable energy – low-tech or high, large-scale or small – harnesses the natural forces upon which much of traditional Native American culture revolves, Henry Red Cloud, a pioneering Native American renewable energy advocate and entrepreneur, points out. Akin to solar, wind, hydro, biomass and geothermal energy, “Our language, our song, our cultural traditions are based on the Sun, the winds, the Earth and its waters,” Red Cloud, a descendant of Lakota-Northern Cheyenne chiefs and founder of Lakota Solar Enterprises, told 3p in an interview.

The recent history of energy, economic and social development on indigenous American tribal lands is a checkered one, however. Booming urban and suburban development and population growth across the American West, not to mention agricultural production and economic expansion, wouldn’t have been possible without the water, energy and mineral resources that have been developed on Native American lands.

Too often, what’s been left behind for tribal communities to deal with have been unfulfilled promises of equitably distributed income, wealth, community development and employment opportunities, along with the necessity of shouldering long-term, unaccounted for social and environmental costs: polluted air, diminished and degraded water resources, and contaminated lands.

Home to the Hopi and Navajo nations, uranium and coal mining and the construction of mega-sized coal-fired power plants in the Four Corners region – such as the Mojave and Navajo Generating Stations – have supplied the electricity that has supported the boom in populations, cities and sprawling suburban areas across the western landscape. Freshwater from the Colorado and other western rivers and watersheds running through Native American lands has been essential for rapid urbanization, as well as the creation of some of the world’s most productive agricultural lands. It has been used for the cultivation of water-intensive crops, such as cotton, and wasted by widespread use of flood irrigation.

While some focus on the income and other benefits that have been accrued by Native American communities from fossil fuel and nuclear energy resource development, others see it as a continuation of the exploitation and colonization of tribal lands and communities that tend to characterize the relationship between Native Americans and the U.S. government to this day. As the non-profit Grand Canyon Trust states,

America’s unquenchable thirst for power to light, heat, and cool our homes and businesses has created myriad problems. No group has suffered more from power plant air pollution, uranium tailing radioactivity, coal mine acid drainage, and lands lost to flooding by hydroelectric dams than Native Americans. Yet, ironically, many tribal lands have no electrical service for their inhabitants.

Roger Clark, director of air quality and clean energy programs at the Grand Canyon Trust, sees the same potential for “white elephants” with respect to large-scale renewable energy project development. As he told 3p,

Developers will come out and say, ‘Hey, have we got something good for you!’ and basically what they get are hourly, low paying, temporary jobs, lease revenues that don’t trickle back to the communities, and a huge amount of pollution and environmental impact.

Energy colonies of the American West

Such issues lie at the heart of the environmental justice movement, and at the nexus where environmental justice meets renewable energy.

The Navajo and Hopi have basically been energy colonies for the metropolitan West, providing cheap coal power for over 40 years. The Navajo Generating Station, for example, provides cheap electricity to run the [water] pumps that supply Phoenix and Tucson.

The tribes are not paid anything for their water, they live in the pollution plumes, and some 40 percent lack access to stable sources of electricity or running water, despite all the promises to provide basic services. They are essentially a third-world nation in the heart of U.S. Southwest, providing subsidized electricity and water for Southern California, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and Denver.

The injustices and triple bottom line costs of past energy resource development on Native American lands remain keenly felt by tribal leaders, residents, and those who work and live with them.

The Native Americans of the Southwest “have been hit with two major waves of energy development, with the federal government either being complicit or at the forefront of development,” Clark continued.

In both waves, the result was a cycle of boom and bust, with the profits and benefits realized largely by outside investor groups, residents of faraway urban centers and owners of agricultural lands. The Native Americans land holders themselves benefitted to a much lesser degree, mainly from land lease payments. Promises of good, lasting employment, and improved infrastructure went unfulfilled. In addition, local communities were left to deal with the long-term costs and consequences: chronic and acute health problems, polluted and drastically diminished water resources, contaminated grazing areas and air pollution.

Clark summed up the situation from his perspective, stating that,

Capitalists without a conscience externalize the costs, take the profits and leave the lasting costs to shareholders and those living on the land, those not powerful enough to defend themselves.

Renewable energy in the service of environmental justice

Despite all this, Clark and Grand Canyon Trust recognize the advantages and benefits renewable energy development offers to Native American tribes, both at the utility and small scales, and in terms of reclaiming, rehabilitating and otherwise redeveloping degraded areas, such as brownfield sites and mines.

Since 2006, Grand Canyon Trust has been working closely with tribes across the Four Corners region to acquire, exchange, share and assimilate all it can in the way of information and resources with an eye towards developing renewable energy projects at both utility and local community scales. As Clark elaborated,

Renewable energy, which relies on the natural flows of wind, water, sun, and the earth’s heat to produce power, aligns Hopi and Navajo values and is the obvious solution to historical problems with energy production. It offers a chance for the Hopi and Navajo to control their energy needs and resources in a way that conforms to their cultures and offers hope for not repeating past mistakes.

“The challenge as we make the transition to yet another energy development is to learn from the errors of the past and not to repeat them,” Clark said. “To make the transition from where we are to where we need to be will mean including more equitable resource access and economic and social development opportunities to people who have borne the brunt of this arrangement.”

To read more, check out this follow up post in which we speak to a leading Native American renewable energy advocate and entrepreneur, as well as a long-serving staff member of the DOE’s Tribal Energy Program.

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  • nancy mcfadden

    Mr. Burger, Wow, what a good article on Native Americans and energy. You showed
    the promise of a better future, and thankfully mentioned problems caused by the
    dominant culture that hurt the Native Americans. I agree, this is a good environmental
    justice column. I will watch for your column on triple pundit. Peace on Earth,
    Nancy McFadden, Nashville