Seth Roffman


Where does Indian Country fit into the world’s largest business sector: energy? A three-day conference in June, Developing Tribal Energy Resources and Economies, at the Sandia Resort-Casino near Albuquerque, brought together 300 tribal energy leaders from across the US and Canada along with government and energy companies’ representatives to focus on this question.

According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of Energy, tribal lands make up approximately 5 percent of the landmass in the US, but hold up to 20 percent of the nation’s energy resources and 10 percent of its renewable resources.

Politics and bureaucracy have long been some of the main obstacles to tribal energy development, and tribes have a long history of being exploited by the federal government and the US energy sector. In a number of cases, tribal lands are a corridor for natural gas pipelines and energy transmission lines for major utilities, although the tribes themselves don’t have access to that energy and have to rely on expensive propane and wood. Some areas of the Navajo Nation are still without electricity and running water.

Self-generation—energy independence for the tribes—was a major conference topic. Current tribal projects, existing or under development, include coal, oil and natural gas, as well as biomass, hydropower, geothermal, solar and wind. A panel of eight tribal leaders strategized on how to improve their economies through natural resources and alternative energy development. Tax incentives for renewable projects tend to be less attractive because tribes aren’t taxed.

A key question is, who provides the financing for tribal energy projects? If it’s major energy and oil companies, what does that mean for tribal sovereignty, the protection of cultural resources, the environment and sacred sites? There is also a lot of interest from China in tribal energy project investment. Tribes are first looking to develop tribe-to-tribe partnerships and coalitions for investment funding. The conference provided networking opportunities among tribes, Alaska Native corporations and First Nations of Canada.

Navajo Coal, Oil and Gas

The Navajo Tribe’s budget relies, to a great extent, on extraction of coal, oil and gas. The federal government fostered that dependency long ago by facilitating the initial leases.

Navajo President Ben Shelly is fighting to keep the Navajo Generating Station, near Page, Ariz., going. Navajos leaders are also trying to buy the Navajo Mine, which fuels the Four Corners Power Plant with coal and provides 800 jobs for a nation whose unemployment tops 60 percent. The Navajos want to build a new rail line in anticipation of coal sales to China.  Shelly threatened to walk out of the conference if the leaders didn’t reform the permitting process for Indian Country energy development.

Shelly and his fellow fossil fuel boosters were countered at the conference by a handful of gadflies. Former Hopi Chairman Vernon Masayesva, founder of the Black Mesa Trust was there, along with former Navajo President Milton Bluehouse. They pointedly questioned the environmental and cultural impacts of coal. An engineer from Flagstaff, Glenn Manygoats, described a plan proposed by activist organizations to replace Navajo Generating Station with a plant that would combine the cycles of solar, wind and hydropower, along with natural gas from the Southern Ute Tribe.



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