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Tribes battle austerity with energy development

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Jonathan Thompson | Jun 13, 2013 01:50 PM

The Albuquerque ambience, as we rolled into town to cover a tribal energy conference, was tinted with doom. It was 7:30 on a June evening, and the car thermometer read 99 degrees. To the north, a massive plume of smoke rose up from the newly ignited Jaroso fire, joining the plumes of the Tres Lagunas and Thompson Ridge fires that had been burning nearby for several days. Dust, kicked up by a vicious wind, shrouded the downtown buildings. The gusts tossed tiny pieces of styrofoam, reputedly from a luxury condo project gone belly up, all along Central, like little pieces of snow.

Four Corners Power Plant
Four Corners Power Plant on the Navajo Nation. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.

“I’m not sure if this is a drought,” said Roger Fragua, of Jemez Pueblo and former Deputy Director of the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, as he introduced the conference the next morning, “or our new reality.” The attendees could think of the scorching planet in the abstract for the moment, at least, as we were all ensconced in the cool, opulent Sandia Pueblo Resort and Casino -- the pueblo is not an energy tribe, but does okay with its own extractive industry, namely mining the pockets of gamblers.

The drought, and climate change, as both opportunity and threat, were recurring themes throughout the conference. But a much bigger menace, it seemed, was the sequester, and a general movement toward austerity on a federal level, which will deal a big blow to tribal budgets even as native populations grow. To face that threat, and to become financially independent, it was generally agreed that tribes must develop their resources, be they wind, coal, oil or sunshine.

Indian lands hold around 20 percent of the nation’s extractable fossil fuels, and 10 percent of its renewable resources. Yet only 1.3 percent of all fossil fuel production in the U.S. happens on tribal land; the figure for renewables is probably far lower. It’s clearly not because tribes don’t want to develop their resources, it’s just that they’re in an awkward position: Many lack the human capacity or capital to develop their own resources, leaving them, potentially, to be exploited by outside corporations and the feds, as has been done for decades. The bureaucratic red tape around resource development on tribal lands is especially thick, and tax incentives for renewable projects carry less weight for tribal projects because tribes aren’t taxed.

Tex Hall, Chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa & Arikara tribes, wearing a straw cowboy hat and a pony tail, holds a bit of rockstar status for getting past that. His tribe’s land -- situated atop the famous Bakken shale formation -- has 800 oil wells with 30 rigs currently drilling, pushing it to the top of the oil-producing tribes in the nation (he emphasizes that his tribe has strictly regulated drillers, and fines them substantially for violations). The Navajo Nation has been an oil giant for decades, and President Ben Shelly made waves at the conference by demanding that the red tape be ripped down, threatening to leave the event if the assembled group of leaders didn’t come up with a plan to streamline the permitting process for resource development in Indian Country.

Shelly’s tribe derives a huge portion of its budget from fossil fuels, including some $48 million from oil and gas and $55 million from coal. “We are dependent upon coal,” Shelly says, and the feds created that dependency by foisting oil and coal leases on them in the first place. Now he says wants time to wean his tribe off the fuel by, yes, investing in it. He’s interested in buying the Navajo coal mine, which fuels the Four Corners Power Plant in northwest New Mexico. The purchase would help keep both the mine and plant -- providing a total of 800 jobs, mostly held by Navajos -- alive, and would entail building a rail line south from the mine to the main BNSF line to enable the mine to sell coal to distant markets. Shelly’s also fighting to keep the Navajo Generating Station near Page, Ariz. going because of the revenue and jobs -- critical given the 50+ percent unemployment rate -- it and the mine that supplies it provide.

Which is not to say that everyone at the conference was in a fossil fueled frenzy. A handful of gadflies were on hand to call out Shelly and his coal boosterism. Vernon Masayesva, a former Hopi Chairman and founder of the Black Mesa Trust, was there, along with Milton Bluehouse, Sr., former Navajo President. Both asked tough questions about the environmental and cultural impacts of coal. Glenn Manygoats, an engineer from Flagstaff, described the activists’ plan to replace Navajo Generating Station with a combined cycle, solar and natural gas power plant, with wind and hydropower backup, using natural gas from the Southern Ute Tribe’s wells. Jemez Pueblo, over which one of New Mexico’s big fires now looms, is making a second, more ambitious attempt, to build a utility-scale solar plant after the first one flopped. It’s relying on help from the Albuquerque-based Southwest Indian Polytechnic Institute and its students, including some from Jemez.

Perhaps they can use the radical turbine designed by Johann Steinlechner, who stood out in the bolo-tied, dark-suited crowd with his big black cowboy hat, a Western sort of polo shirt with a graphic of a horse herd trampling across it and a thick Austrian accent as incongruous as the wing tips he was wearing. He retired at 40, went on a tour of casinos, “living the high life,” until a friend was killed in Iraq “for da oil,” inspiring him to delve into the wind industry. Now he’s invented a giant turbine that lies flat -- from the outside it resembles a parking garage, while the turbine looks like a giant roulette wheel -- reducing bird kills and aesthetic concerns.

For the time being, though, it appears that drill rigs will outnumber wind turbines in Indian Country. T. Greg Merrion, President of Merrion Oil & Gas, seemed ready to burst from his skin with enthusiasm over the riches in the mostly untapped Mancos Shale formation that underlies a huge swath of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona and several Indian reservations. Though most of the land in question is already pocked with thousands of conventional oil and gas and coalbed methane wells, the hunt for Mancos Shale oil will require horizontal drilling and “very very large fracking jobs,” with each $5 to $10 million well requiring as much as 1 to 2 million pounds of sand and 5 to 10 million gallons of water. This is no Bakken, said Merrion, but “our future looks bright.”

As he said this, golf carts rolled by outside the wall-sized window of the room, along a path carved from the emerald green grassy hilltop. Sprinklers sprayed a glimmering stream into the smoky air all day long, in a desperate attempt to keep the desert at bay.

In one of those unscripted moments that such conferences can produce, Shelly worried that global warming and rising sea levels would force urban folk inland, and they'd seek out Indian land for their new homes. The only way to avoid such a fate, he said, would be to develop the land, and develop the economies. It's a bit far-fetched, and contradictory. But outsiders have long gone after the resources on tribal lands; it's only natural that the tribes would want to have some control over the onslaught, and to get as much from it as they can.

After all, said Monique LaChappa of the Campo Band Mission Indians, a small tribe near San Diego that has a 50 MW wind farm: “Whoever has the water and the energy, in the end, is going to win.”

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. His Twitter handle is @jonnypeace

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