Some tribes try their hands at renewable energy, but traditional energy sources hold more allure than ever

ROSEBUD, SOUTH DAKOTA — On the vast, undulating plains of the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, winds averaging 18 miles per hour flatten prairie grasses and turn winter into a subzero menace. But the near-constant gales do have their advantages.

“I don’t need a hair dryer in the morning,” says Darrell Marcus, a tribal council member for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. “I just stand there, and the wind dries my hair.”

Now, the tribe has harnessed that wind for a more ambitious purpose: power. On May 1, tribal leaders unveiled a 750-kilowatt wind turbine that will produce enough juice to power 220 homes. It is the first tribally owned, large-scale turbine in Indian Country.

“When those blades went up, our hearts went up with it,” says Robert Gough, gazing up at the trio of seven-foot long blades slowly spinning almost 200 feet above him. Gough is secretary for the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy, a coalition of eight Plains tribes that works to develop renewable energy on tribal lands.

The turbine will bring in about $15,000 a year in revenue, says Rob Bordeaux, president of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Utility Commission. And that’s just the beginning: The tribe is planning a 20- to 30-megawatt “wind ranch” — a whole field full of turbines — due to come online in about two years.

For decades, tribes have lived with a cruel irony: While Indian lands hold a treasure chest of energy resources, many American Indians are living without power. More than 14 percent of tribal households do not have electricity, according to the Department of Energy. That’s 10 times the national average.

Projects like the Rosebud wind farm offer a way out, and promise to empower tribes, just as they power homes and businesses. The Energy Department estimates that wind resources on the Northern Plains — called by some the “Saudi Arabia of Wind” — could supply 75 percent of the electricity demand in the Lower 48 states. Gough says reservations alone could produce 200 to 300 gigawatts of wind energy — enough to power millions of homes.

A new set of rules

But while some tribes, such as the Rosebud Sioux and Montana’s Blackfeet Tribe, are investing in wind power, pressure is on to tap traditional energy sources on reservations.

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., has introduced legislation that would exempt energy projects on Indian lands from environmental review and public comment, and allow tribes to regulate development now overseen by the U.S. Department of Interior. General rules governing energy development would still have to be approved by the Interior secretary, but individual lease agreements between tribes and energy companies would not.

As it stands now, under the Indian Mineral Development Act of 1982, Interior must review the potential environmental impacts of energy projects, a process that typically takes six months to a year, says David Lester, executive director for the Denver-based Council of Energy Resource Tribes, a coalition of energy-producing tribes. “The deals are often dead by then,” he says. “Interest rates change, market prices fall — if the deals don’t move quickly, they die.”

Campbell’s bill would “streamline the process,” says Paul Moorehead, chief counsel for the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, chaired by Campbell.

The legislation would also waive Interior’s trust responsibility to the tribes in energy dealings. This trust relationship means the federal government must ensure that tribes get a fair shake when their land is leased for mining, grazing, logging or drilling. In recent years, Indians have sued the Interior Department, accusing the agency of mismanaging billions of dollars it collected from those leases (HCN, 5/12/03: Missing Indian money: Piles or pennies?).

But some tribal leaders and environmental groups say there aren’t enough financial and human resources in Indian Country to ensure that tribal energy resources are developed in an environmentally responsible way. They fear that the legislation, dubbed the “Native American Energy Development and Self-Determination Act” before being rolled into a larger, catchall Senate energy bill, would leave tribes vulnerable to exploitation by energy companies.

Historically, when tribes have tried to assert their authority over corporations, “they’re challenged at every turn,” says David Getches, a professor of natural resource law at the University of Colorado and one of the founders of the Native American Rights Fund. “When you’re talking about things like power plants, where there are millions of dollars involved, you will see some of the most vigorous challenges ever to tribal sovereignty.”

“I think a better name for this legislation would be the ‘Native American Self-Termination Act’,” says Robert Shimek, special projects director for the Indigenous Environmental Network and a member of the Chippewa Tribe. “The way it’s proposed, it reopens the door for dirty projects — projects that nobody else wants.”

Shimek is wary of a return to the days when the federal government endorsed projects like the Black Mesa coal mine on the Navajo reservation in northeastern Arizona. In the 1960s, the Peabody Coal Company strip-mined 17,000 acres of tribal lands, and the still-active operation has been blamed for depleting the aquifer and drying up the Hopi Tribe’s sacred springs.

“(Tribal lands) were essentially energy colonies for the rest of the country,” says Lester.

When the Senate resumes debate on the energy bill this summer, Campbell is expected to offer an amendment addressing some of critics’ concerns, including retaining Interior’s trust responsibility and laying out requirements that tribes would have to follow when conducting environmental reviews.

No matter where the chips fall on Capitol Hill, Lester is convinced the dig-and-run days of the past are over. “You won’t find many tribes that will allow a company to come in and just have at it,” he says. “Just because we’re poor doesn’t mean we’ll sell out.”

The author writes from Paonia, Colorado.

• Rosebud Sioux Tribe Utility Commission Rod Bordeaux, 605-747-4097
• Council of Energy Resource Tribes David Lester, 303-282-7576
• Department of Energy Lizana Pierce, 303-275-4727