» NATIVE ENERGY FUTURES: Renewable Energy & the New Rush on Indian Lands

by Brian Awehali

(2006 Project Censored Award winner)

“Huge investments in electrical power grids, highways, and telecommunications would help Colombia open up its vast gas and oil resources and its largely undeveloped Amazonian territories; the projects, in turn, would generate the income necessary to pay off the loans, plus interest. That was the theory. However, the reality, consistent with our true intent around the world, was to subjugate Bogota, to further the global empire. My job…was to present the case for exceedingly large loans.”

— John Perkins, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man

“The ability for tribes to obtain bonds in the hundred-million-dollar range to finance energy projects is now a reality. And the $20 million a year for an Indian energy office at the Department of Energy is something that we started working on years ago under Energy Secretary Bill Richardson.”

— Chris Stearns, former Indian Affairs Director at the US DOE

It all started with a single 750kW wind turbine built by the Rosebud Sioux in South Dakota in 2003. At the time, the Business Journal called the turbine “a four-way transcontinental deal in which everyone makes money while fighting global warming, generating clean electricity and helping Native Americans.” In other words, the Journal gushed, the wind project was “a ‘green capitalist’s’ dream.”

The editors at the Business Journal might have been a tad hyperbolic in their assessment, but energy on Indian land is certainly big business. In 2004, some $400 million was split between 41 tribes for the sale of oil, gas, and coal on their lands. According to the Indigenous Environmental Network, 35% of the fossil fuel resources in the US are within Indian country; The Department of the Interior estimates that Indian lands hold undiscovered reserves of almost 54 billion tons of coal, 38 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 5.4 billion barrels of oil. Indian lands also contain enormous amounts of alternative energy: “Wind blowing through Indian reservations in just four northern Great Plains states could support almost 200,000 megawatts of wind power,” Winona LaDuke told Indian Country Today in March 2005. “[And] tribal landholdings in the southwestern US…could generate enough power to eradicate all fossil fuel burning power plants in the US.”

Now imagine, if you can, that you run a US-based energy company at a time when increasing resistance to US imperialism, coupled with rising business costs related to political instability, has made getting the oil, coal, and gas from foreign sources more difficult. Imagine that you’re savvy enough to know that your fossil fuel-based business model is about to get dramatically less lucrative. If you didn’t already have them, you’d probably want to start setting up operations in the more business-friendly, less regulated Wild West of Indian Country. If you were really devious—or maybe just smart—you might want to have your cake and eat it too, by getting tax subsidies and favorable terms for developing your next business model while greenwashing your ongoing fossil fuel operations. Wouldn’t you?

“Consistent with the President’s National Energy Policy to secure America’s energy future,” testified Theresa Rosier, Counselor to the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, “increased energy development in Indian and Alaska Native communities could help the Nation have more reliable home-grown energy supplies. [The Native American Energy Development and Self-Determination Act of 2003] promotes increased and efficient energy development and production in an environmentally sound manner.”

The bill did not ultimately pass, but the idea that “America’s energy future” should be linked to having “more reliable home-grown energy supplies” can be found in other native energy-specific legislation that has passed into law. What this line of thinking fails to take into consideration is that Native America is not actually USAmerica, and that the “supplies” in question belong to sovereign nations, not to the United States or its energy sector.

Rosier’s statement conveys quite a lot about how the government and the energy sector intend to market the growing shift away from dependence on foreign energy, and how they plan to deregulate (by using “efficiency” as a selling point) and step up their exploitation (“development”) of “domestic” native energy resources: by spinning it as a way to produce clean energy while helping Native Americans gain greater economic and tribal sovereignty.

Of course, if large companies can establish lucrative partnerships with tribes, largely free of regulation and federal oversight, then so much the better. In this regard, a look at the Alaska Native “communities” Rosier mentioned is instructive.

In 1971, Alaskan tribal companies were set up by Congress with roughly $1 billion and 44 million acres of land to divide. Although the real reason for establishing these companies had to do with breaking down largely unified tribal opposition to the construction of an oil pipeline, they were pitched at the time as a way to help stimulate tribal economies and mitigate the scale of poverty on tribal lands. “Tribal companies [can] be considered small businesses even after winning billions of dollars in contracts, and there is no limit to the size of the no-bid awards they can win,” reported Michael Scherer in an excellent 2005 Mother Jones article entitled “US: Little Big Companies.”

The Alaska tribal companies have, according to Scherer, “become a way for large corporations with no Native American ownership to receive no-bid contracts, an avenue for federal officials to steer work to favored companies, and a device for speeding privatization.” Evidence for this assertion abounds. From 2002 through the end of 2004, the Olgoonik Corporation, owned by the Inupiat Eskimo tribe, garnered revenues in excess of $225 million for construction work on US military bases around the world. Because of its tribal status, Olgoonik procured this work without having to bid against others for it. It then subcontracted most of the work to the infamous multinational corporation Halliburton.

A November 2004 article in The News & Observer (UK) further reported that “Procurement rules allow native American-owned company, Alutiiq, to provide favored entrée to government contracts and then outsource them to British-owned multinational, Wackenhut.” The article also went on to note that the Chugach Alaska Corp., owned by 1,900 Alaska natives, “was ranked ahead of IBM, Motorola, Goodrich, Goodyear and AT&T in total value of defense contracts in 2003.”

Apologists and professional flak catchers, of course, claim that this state of affairs is nothing more than an unfortunate, and unforeseen accident. But Michael Brown, a major player in the formation of Alaskan tribal companies and the so-called “godfather of tribal contracting,” told Mother Jones that this explosion in federal work was “exactly what he hoped for” when he went to work as the chief executive for a subsidiary of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation in 1982 and pioneered such practices. Arctic Slope is the state’s largest tribal corporation, and the single largest company in Alaska.

Now jump forward with me, to April 2003, and the completion of the first large-scale native-owned wind turbine in history—the aforementioned Rosebud Sioux project, built in partnership with NativeEnergy, LLC. During the preceding 21 years, reports ranging from the cautionary to the apocalyptic about carbon emissions and global warming have piled up, and all but the most pig-headed of carbon-emitting industrialists now concede that a fossil fuel-based business model is soon going to be a lot less lucrative.

NativeEnergy, which wants to help consumers “enjoy a climate neutral lifestyle,” was founded in 2000 with a mission “to get more wind turbines and other renewable energy systems built.” There were no Native Americans present in the management of NativeEnergy at the time of its founding. The multiphase wind development initiative, which began in earnest with the completion of the first wind turbine in 2003, was billed as a way to bring renewable energy–related jobs and training opportunities to the citizens of this sovereign nation, who are among the poorest in all of North America.

NativeEnergy’s President and CEO Tom Boucher is an energy industry vet who formerly worked at Green Mountain Energy, a subsidiary of a company now controlled by oil industry giant BP and Nuon, a Netherlands-based energy company. Boucher was convinced there was profit to be made in alternative energy, and the Rosebud project was his test case. Boucher financed the project by selling, of all things, air. More specifically, he took advantage of the new “flexible emissions standards” created by the Kyoto Protocol. Essentially, the standards created tax-deductible pollution credits (or “green tags”) for ecologically responsible companies, which can then be sold to polluters wishing to “offset” their carbon dioxide generation without actually reducing their emissions.

As you might expect from a company staffed largely by energy industry vets, NativeEnergy was fiscally crafty. In a novel accounting move, they bought from the Rosebud Sioux, at deep discount, all the green tag pollution credits that they speculated would be accrued over the lifespan of the Rosebud wind project—a total of 50,000 tons of carbon dioxide—then made a lump-sum, one-time funding commitment to the construction of the project. In an April 2003 interview with the Business Journal, Boucher would not divulge how deep the discount he got was, nor would he divulge the terms of subsequent sales of green tags.

Since their first test case proved successful, NativeEnergy has moved forward with plans to develop a larger “distributed wind project,” located on eight different reservations. NativeEnergy also became a majority Indian-owned company in August 2005, when the pro-development Intertribal Council on Utility Policy (yes, Intertribal COUP), purchased a majority stake in the company on behalf of its member tribes.

Pat Spears, the President of COUP and a member of the lower Brule Sioux tribe, described the purchase as “a great day for Native American people everywhere, because we are demonstrating that living in harmony with our Mother Earth is not only good for the environment, it is also good business. We look forward,” he added, “to bringing in more tribes as equity participants and taking NativeEnergy to the next level.”

It’s probably no coincidence that this purchase coincided with that month’s passage of the 2005 Energy Policy Act, which contains native energy–specific provisions in its Title V. Supporters like Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians, touted the act as “one of the most important tribal pieces of legislation to hit Indian country in the past 20 years. [It] provides real incentives for energy companies to partner with Indian tribes in developing tribal resources.” Keeping in mind that tribal-owned companies are exempt from a great deal of the regulation, oversight, and competitive bidding stipulations that apply to other businesses, and that the legislation increases subsidies for wind energy in particular, the act leaves NativeEnergy ideally situated to exploit its tribal status.

But there are a host of alarming provisions in the act. For starters, Section 1813 of Title V gives the US the obviously dangerous power to grant rights of way through Indian lands without permission from Indian tribes, if deemed to be in the strategic interests of an energy-related project. Other critics have derided the act as a fire sale on Indian energy, characterizing various incentives as a broad collection of subsidies for US energy companies, particularly those in Texas. And, according to a 2005 Democracy Now! interview with Clayton Thomas-Muller, Native Energy Organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network, the act “rolls back the protections of the National Environmental Policy Act and the protections of the National Historic Preservation Act, both of which are critical pieces of legislation that grassroots indigenous peoples utilize to protect our sacred sites.”

Most importantly, under the guise of promoting tribal sovereignty (leaving out those aspects of sovereignty that have little or nothing to do with economics), the act also releases the federal government from its traditional trust responsibility to tribes where resource development is concerned.

The trust relationship between the US and native tribes has been a crucial way for Native Americans to hold the government legally accountable, as evidenced by the many recent court losses suffered by the Department of the Interior and Treasury during the years-long Indian Trust Case filed by Eloise Cobell on behalf of more than 500,000 Native American landholders. The trust relationship was originally imposed on Native Americans in 1887, after the passage of the Dawes Allotment Act. This act was a fairly straightforward (and successful) attempt to break down tribal unity by dispersing parcels of land to individual Indian “heads of household” who signed on to the government’s “tribal rolls.” The land was not to be managed by Native Americans, however: It was held “in trust,” and the government was supposed to disburse to Native landholders the royalties generated by the leasing of their lands to timber, mining, livestock, and energy interests. But for the most part, the government didn’t disburse the money, and now admits that at least $137 billion of it is simply missing. Without the trust relationship, which among other things makes the government legally responsible for the money it manages, Cobell and her coplaintiffs could not have sued.

The Energy Policy Act also shifts responsibility for environmental review and regulation from the federal to tribal governments. This, too, was promoted under the auspices of increasing tribal sovereignty, but it doesn’t take a genius to know that Native Americans won’t be any more successful in regulating the energy industry than the US government, a host of well-funded environmental groups, and the UN have been. In fact, it probably only takes a village-variety idiot to comprehend the predictably disastrous outcome of this shift for Native Americans.

It’s hard to believe, in light of the relevant history, that an ever-avaricious energy industry—which has been all too willing to play a game of planetary ecological brinksmanship in the name of profit—places any value on tribal sovereignty unless there’s a way to exploit it. It’s hard to believe, after hundreds of years of plunder and unaccountability, that further deregulation, coupled with economic incentives, and even with the participation of some well-meaning “green” players on the field, is going to deliver anything but the predictable domination of Native Americans by white European economic powers.

In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say that the emerging Native American energy infrastructure looks more like the beginnings of a new rush on Indian lands than it does the advent of any kind of brave new sovereign era.

But don’t take my word for it. Take it from Billy Connelly, the senior advisor on marketing and communications for NativeEnergy, the company, you’ll recall, that helped usher in the dawn of this renewable energy rush. When asked during a March 2006 phone interview why the demonstration of a potentially viable renewable energy economy on Native American lands wasn’t simply an example of small businesses laying the groundwork for the eventual control and megaprofits of major corporations, Connelly sighed and said simply, “I’d be pleasantly surprised if this didn’t follow that age-old pattern.”

Perhaps, at a minimum, tribes can attain a modicum of energy independence from the development of wind, solar, and other renewable energy infrastructure on their lands. And there may well be a way to ride Native American renewable energy resources to a future of true tribal sovereignty. But it won’t come from getting into bed with, and becoming indebted to, the very industry currently driving the planet to its doom.


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