What the Inflation Reduction Act means for Indian Country

$720 million goes directly to tribal nations, but compromises raise questions.

 

In August, President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law, which contains the most meaningful climate legislation passed so far by Congress. The act directs $720 million in climate resilience and energy funding directly to tribes, including money for drought relief and electrification. According to Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians and vice president of the Quinault Nation, the funding will “go a long way to supporting tribal nations who are on the front lines” of climate change. Sharp’s own nation is a coastal tribe in the Pacific Northwest that has already begun the process to relocate its communities to higher ground as sea levels rise.

But the act also incentives mining and gives new opportunities to oil and gas leasing, extractive activities that already regularly impact landscapes and wildlife that are critical for tribal cultural practices. A compromise that Democratic leadership made with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) could alter the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), which enshrines the public’s ability to influence federal agency’s decision-making around projects on public lands. The act’s provisions could “create even more sacrifice zones that will disproportionately impact the lands and water of Indigenous and Black communities,” said Kailea Frederick, climate justice organizer at NDN Collective.

President Joe Biden signs the Inflation Reduction Act into law last month. While the law is a major investment in climate action, it also expands extractive activities that already regularly impact landscapes and wildlife that are critical for tribal cultural practices.
Yuri Gripas/Sipa via AP Images

The $720 million is a relatively small portion of the $369 billion that’s devoted to energy and climate in the bill. Still, it includes $235 million for tribal climate resilience, $225 million for tribes to develop high-efficiency electric home rebate programs, $75 million for energy loan programs and $25 million specifically designated for Native Hawaiian climate resilience. And, importantly, some of the grants that will be available to tribal nations do not require tribes to provide matching funds. The National Congress of American Indians has long requested that the federal government end requiring cost sharing, because it creates a financial barrier and makes it harder for tribes to access grants for programs that range from mental health and substance use to water-saving and climate resilient infrastructure.

The Inflation Reduction Act also reflects the Biden administration’s desire to increase the nation’s domestic supply of minerals important to renewable energy, such as nickel, copper, lithium and cobalt. Mining companies will get a tax break on operations that deal with these so-called critical minerals. In the U.S., the vast majority of such mineral deposits are located within 35 miles of a tribal reservation, according to a 2021 analysis by the investment company MSCI. The proximity between potential future mining ventures and Indigenous communities clearly illustrates the tension between the Biden administration’s efforts to transition to renewable energy while respecting tribal sovereignty and environmental justice. Ongoing conflicts over lithium mining in Thacker Pass, Nevada, and a proposed copper mine in Oak Flat, Arizona, have repeatedly demonstrated how few legal avenues are available to tribal nations that attempt to protect off-reservation ancestral lands now managed by the federal government.

At the same time, the Biden administration has begun working on reforming domestic hardrock mining, starting with an interagency working group to examine permitting policies, laws and regulations around mining. Throughout the month of August, the Department of the Interior held formal tribal consultation sessions to get input from tribes on the impacts that mining has had on Indigenous communities in order to better inform the changing standards. In a February release, the administration explained the reforms as necessary to address the increased domestic mining that will be required by the transition to renewable energy. “If we’re going to meet the needs of the clean energy economy while respecting our obligations to tribal nations, Western communities, taxpayers, the environment, and future generations, we need an all-of-government approach and the input of all Americans,” said Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland in a statement at the time.

Among the legislative side-deals made with Manchin was an agreement to reform the permitting process for energy projects and help streamline environmental reviews. Written legislation around the deal has yet to be finalized, and it is not yet certain that it will be attached to a must-pass spending bill due by the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30. The reforms under consideration include setting a maximum time limit of two years for National Environmental Protection Act reviews and a statute of limitations on court challenges to energy projects, which often slow down project timelines and, at the same time, remain one of the few avenues tribes have if federal processes fail them.

Many see the accelerated NEPA timelines as a red flag; if the public comment process is restricted, that will affect the general public as well as any individual tribal members or groups whose opinions may differ from their tribal nations’ official stance. For tribal governments, changes to the public NEPA process would be separate and apart from government-to-government consultation requirements, though a sped-up timeline could contribute to the “box-checking” mentality of federal agencies, something that was already evident in government consultation with tribes even before the pandemic exacerbated the problem. “If a tribe is small, or not well-funded or well-staffed, they may not have the manpower to get through all of that really technical information in a truncated period of time,” said Gussie Lord (Oneida Nation of Wisconsin), managing attorney of tribal partnerships at Earthjustice. “That minimizes tribes’ ability to provide meaningful input.”

The direct funds from the Inflation Reduction Act are sorely needed by tribal governments, which are regularly underfunded by Congress. A number of tribes have already started addressing climate change impacts on their own. But even as additional climate resources trickle into Indigenous communities, advocates will be watching to see how the act’s compromises will impact people on the ground — especially those who live near oil and gas and future mining sites.

Anna V. Smith is an associate editor for High Country News. She has placed in the Native American Journalists Association’s Native Media Awards in the category of Best Coverage of Native America three times. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy. 

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