ENERGY DEVELOPMENT IN INDIAN COUNTRY ON THE UPSURGE WITH CONCERNS FROM TRIBAL GROUPS
Bemidji, Minnesota – Energy development in Indian country is again becoming big business. The Osage in Oklahoma and Crow tribes are pursuing coal-bed methane projects, while the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold reservation in North Dakota are entering the oil refinery business. The Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes in Colorado are pursuing oil development with an eye towards coal-bed methane development. The Fort Mohave tribe along the lower Colorado River in Arizona and California are leasing their land to California based energy company, Calpine Corporation, to build a natural gas electrical generating plant. Easements allowing the building of electrical transmission lines throughout Indian country are being negotiated, often without adequate input from grassroots tribal members.
Tribal members at the Fort Berthold Indian reservation in North Dakota are organizing to stop the proposed development of a petroleum refinery within their reservation boundary. They are concerned the refinery would negatively affect their human health and environment. Petroleum refinery facilities release and transfer over 600 toxic chemicals into the air, water and land contributing to cancer and birth defects for communities living near refineries. “I just don’t understand why our own tribal council representatives want to initiate an industry proven to adversely and detrimentally affect our human health and all aspects of the environment. Within our reservation, we already have an extreme number of cancer illnesses and deaths and asthma. I believe this is due to our direct proximity to the lignite industries adjacent to us. Building an oil refinery is just another polluting industry that will increase more toxic burden on our children and people. The detrimental effects will reach far beyond our reservation and impact Indians and non-Indians alike,” said Jody White, a concerned tribal member.
On the Navajo reservation, a Texas-based energy firm recently announced its intention to build a new 1,500-megawatt coal fired power generating station in northwest New Mexico, more likely to be located on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico. Coal mining on the Navajo and Hopi reservation, would feed the expansion of these power plants. Coal mining has caused water depletion and uprooted Navajo and Hopi families that live in the Big Mountain and Black Mesa area.
Planning for the transmission of electricity has been a challenge by both the energy developers and tribal authorities. The tribal Navajo Transmission Project proposes to build the energy highway that would feed the insatiable cities of the southwest. “We strongly oppose the Navajo Transmission Project and any new fossil fuel power plants on or near our peoples traditional land base,” said, Enei Begaye, a member of Black Mesa Water Coalition. “These projects would not provide any sustainable future for our people. The burning of coal and gas emits many toxic chemicals that harm our land, water, animals, our people and our future. We can not allow our lands to be the battery that is powering an unsustainable colonial energy system.”
“In our view, these locally proposed projects are the reflection of unsustainable international and federal energy policies and legislation. Policies, such as Senate energy bill S.14, and its section on Indian energy, Title III, and the House energy bill HR.6, are meant to allow industry greater access to our land under the guise of sovereignty,” said Tom Goldtooth, director of the Indigenous Environmental Network. Begaye added, “As Indigenous peoples, we are the first nations to this continent and we cannot allow federal energy policies that promote continued fossil fuel dependence to be reflected within our tribal energy policies. We cannot allow our people to be the exploited labor force for these industries. We can not compromise the future of our children and grandchildren.”
Energy policy in the U.S. does not recognize the protection of sacred sites. The Bush administration in late 2002, gave Calpine Corporation permission to develop a 48-megawatt geothermal power plant beside the sacred Medicine Lake in California’s volcanic far north, reversing President Clinton 2000 decision that blocked the project. Bush administration officials stressed the project’s potential role towards the U.S. getting closer to energy independence. Tribes in the area say they worry that the drilling will drain spiritual energy from a land they have used for hundreds of generations as a sacred healing place.
The Zuni tribe of New Mexico are waging a battle with Salt River Project (SRP), an Arizona-based electric power company that wants to destroy the sacred Zuni Salt Lake, by mining over 80 million tons of coal from 18,000 acres of federal, state, and private lands. The lake is a sacred place, home to Zuni’s very important deity, the Salt Mother. SRP will pump 85 gallons per minute of groundwater from the same aquifer that feeds the lake. Since time immemorial, the Zuni, Acoma, Laguna, Hopi, Navajo, Apache and other Southwestern tribes have traveled to the lake over pilgrimage trails to collect salt for ceremonial and domestic purposes. SRP will also construct a 44-mile railroad from the mine in Fence Lake, New Mexico, to the Coronado Generating Station in St. John’s, Arizona. The railroad will destroy many sections of pilgrimage trails and prevent access over those trails. SRP wants to destroy all of this so that Arizona consumers can have cheap electricity from dirty coal. The costs to the environment and tribes are too high.
“The U.S. energy policy has been at the expense of our Indian people that has left whole communities devastated and living in terror. It is an oppressive colonial system that feeds off the blood of the earth and blood of our people. We need to stop this colonial mindset that clouds our tribal leadership to think we could become partners with the fossil fuel and nuclear energy industry and still maintain our cultural and spiritual integrity,” said Goldtooth.
IEN promotes the concept of tribal energy sovereignty whereby tribal governments could promote the use of clean renewable energy, such as wind power or solar. As sovereigns, tribes could help reshape the electric power system. Tribes could develop their own renewable energy systems, both to meet the needs of tribal facilities and to sell power over the grid.
The Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota has embarked on a wind energy project that is already providing a model for tribal reservations throughout South Dakota. The tribe has partnered with Native Energy of Vermont, with the assistance of the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy to build the first tribally owned large scale 750 Kw wind turbine in Indian country. The tribe recently held a dedication for the historical wind turbine in May. Tribes in South Dakota could become major generators of clean renewable energy in the production of wind energy. Studies show that on the Rosebud alone, the average wind speed is 18 miles per hour, enough to supply 2.4 million kilowatt-hours of electricity a year.
There is a need for the energy legislation to include measures to diversify U.S. energy supplies with renewable power sources. A U.S. clean energy policy helps both the economy and protects wildlife, environment, refuge areas, Indian lands and public health. The U.S. energy legislation must fund continued advances in renewable energy technology, clean renewable power, energy conservation and energy-saving programs. Development of these initiatives will reduce U.S. dependence on imported oil.
American Indian environmental and economic justice groups like the Black Mesa Water Coalition calls for a just transition to clean renewable energy sources and sustainable economic development practices that reflect the Navajo and Hopi traditional beliefs of respect for each other and the earth – both at the tribal level and across the country.
We call for a more sustainable and culturally appropriate development that is guided by the values and teachings of our ancestors. We call for an economic base that would truly empower our people rather then the pockets of transnational corporations, western cities, tribal, state and federal government. We call for an end to the colonization of our lands for energy purposes and we demand a better government that is more accountable to the people.