July 11, 2017

Native Peoples Break Ground on Renewable Energy

Phillip Henri

Last month, President Donald Trump expressed his desire for “American energy dominance” to a roundtable of state and tribal leaders. His prepared remarks advocated proposing cuts to regulations regarding mining and drilling on Native reservations.

In the president’s mind, cutting regulations would be a bold step to create job growth in Native American communities and solve the long, vexing problem of reservation energy dependence.

In reality, however, President Trump is using empty promises to further the exploitation of Native Americans and their resources for corporate profit.

Fossil fuel extraction will not lead Natives into a secure energy future, and Trump’s insistence on such projects is rooted in his own business interests, rather than genuine concern for indigenous communities. In a world where the effects of global climate change are becoming increasingly more apparent, renewable energy is the only path toward a sovereign, sustainable future. Despite having only a fraction of the public funding that fossil fuels receive, renewable energy sources—particularly wind and solar—are rapidly becoming the cheapest form of new power. Now, many tribal governments are acting on that fact.

Achieving energy dependence has been a challenge for Native American communities and a major obstacle in asserting tribal sovereignty. For years, federal bureaucracy has made sovereign energy development very difficult for reservations. The high costs and regulatory hoops imposed on tribal dealings often deter potential funders’ interest in backing energy projects on Native reservations.

Exemplified by the actions of Energy Transfer Partners, the parent company of the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL), non-Native energy companies do not have a promising history of negotiating fairly with Native Americans. A look into recent US history shows that the energy companies’ relationships to Native communities tend to follow a striking similar narrative across projects: indigenous folks are used for their resources and cheap labor, manipulated with promises of economic growth, and then left with toxic byproducts of extraction while any benefits of the project are actualized elsewhere.

"Many of your lands have rich, natural resources that stand to benefit your people immensely. These untapped resources of wealth can help you build new schools, fix roads, improve your communities, and create jobs—jobs like you’ve never seen before." 

– President Donald Trump

During the Cold War, the Navajo Nation was exploited by the US government to mine weapons-grade uranium, on their land without proper safety precautions. Impoverished Dinè families, lured in by the promise of work, suffered greatly elevated rates of cancer. Today, their descendants continue to struggle with the 500 abandoned mines that plague their land, air, and water.

Trump’s recent promise of jobs on Native lands through deregulation and resource exploitation is a chilling callback to this dark episode of American history.

Furthermore, deregulation continues a trend of outside groups coming onto Native lands rather than supporting tribal growth and entrepreneurship. Most tribal communities do not have their own utility provider and must pay their utility bills to an outside companies. Therefore, this accounts for significant transfer of wealth off of reservations and out of the hands of Native communities.

Despite the executive branch’s love affair with fossil fuels, many reservations are looking towards the future and moving in the direction of renewable resources as a long term solution to issues of energy. Leaders of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota are hoping that by building up their power grid, they will not only begin to support their own tribal government’s sovereignty, but also reduce the carbon footprint of nearby communities through clean energy production.

As it turns out, South Dakota is ideal for solar energy development and ranks fourth in the nation for potential wind power production. To capitalize on these potentials, Pine Ridge’s community development organization, Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation (CDC), worked with community members and tribal leaders on the reservation to create guidelines for sustainable long-term development: the Oyate Omniciye’ Plan. Among other things, the plan outlines methods to establish a self-contained renewable energy infrastructure powered by wind, solar, and biomass fuels.

Pine Ridge’s leaders have estimated that for every megawatt of wind power installed, 15-19 long term jobs will be created in related fields like installation, maintenance, and weatherization. Research is also underway at South Dakota State University and across the country on the efficacy of switchgrass as a viable biofuel.

Requiring only minimal irrigation, fertilizer, and pesticide use to produce high energy density liquid or solid fuels, switchgrass is easily one of the most promising biofuel crops. Additionally, it can be grown on lands not suitable for other crops, including much of the Great Plains area, and can help reverse climate change by pulling large amounts of carbon from the air and securely storing it in the soil. With the proper management, switchgrass could become a lucrative cash crop for the people of the Pine Ridge Reservation that would benefit the whole planet.

Energy development is and will continue to be one of the most feasible options for widespread economic growth in tribal communities with some 14 percent of the entire country’s renewable energy potential residing on Native lands. Energy development isn’t just a means of economic gain either. When nearly 15 percent of American Indian households on reservations have no access to power, energy development represents a step in the direction of a respectable standard of living on reservations.

In June of this year, the Wallace Global Fund awarded the first Henry Wallace Award to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe for their effort to stand up to colonial corporate fascism in the #NoDAPL movement last year. This award includes a $250,000 gift for the tribe, as well as an investment guarantee of up to $1 million for renewable energy development to support tribal independence and sovereignty.

Standing Rock’s Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! last month that the tribe’s goal is to use the award money to power all of Standing Rock’s twelve communities with renewable energy. Similarly, Archambault hopes that this inertia can add fuel to fire and help create a trend across Indian country: “If Native tribal nations can say we are 100 percent powered and 100 percent of what we consume is renewable energy, that builds awareness for other communities and maybe the nation.”

In the wake of Trump’s green-light of DAPL and Keystone XL, it remains clear that there is a continuing confrontation between the indigenous communities of this continent and the fossil fuel industry. As long as energy companies continue to encroach onto sovereign lands and display a profound lack of respect for sacred sites and traditions, there will continue to be indigenous resistance. One form of this resistance is the development of clean, sovereign energy infrastructure.

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