The Willow project is part of a larger trend: energy colonialism

Five decades ago, the late Navajo Nation President Peterson Zah described America’s ‘power madness.’


This is an installment of the Landline, a fortnightly newsletter from High Country News about land, water, wildlife, climate and conservation in the Western United States. Sign up to get it in your inbox.

In May 1971, at a U.S. Senate committee hearing on the possible impacts of the coal plants and mines then sprouting up in the Southwest, a 33-year-old Diné legal advocate named Peterson Zah testified. He told the senators: “When for centuries our people have lived in relative harmony with the land, it is all but impossible to understand a power plant complex destroying the timeless balance with nature in a few short years.

“The formula is very simple and politically sound: Indian land, Indian coal and Indian water will generate Indian power. The power will be shipped across Indian lands to Albuquerque, Phoenix and Los Angeles. The cities will get more and more power at no cost to their environment. The result will be Indian pollution. But why should Indians be forced to suffer the consequences of the American public’s power madness? If the cities must have more power, let them put up with the filth which their power greed produces.”

Zah’s testimony — of which the above paragraph is only a small piece — remains a powerful indictment of energy colonialism and America’s “power madness.” It was also a striking demonstration of the eloquence that helped elevate him to the chairmanship of the Navajo Tribal Council in 1983 and, in 1990, to the presidency of the Navajo Nation, where he stood up to fossil fuel and uranium companies and held them accountable, forcing them to pay fairer royalties for operating on tribal land.

Zah died last week after a lengthy illness. But his legacy lives on. And so does the “power madness” he described in his testimony. Americans are as greedy as ever for electricity to power our big gadget-filled homes, buildings and industry, as well as for fuel and batteries to run our vehicles. And whether the power is generated from fossil fuels or from cleaner sources, that power madness often follows the same colonial patterns that Zah castigated five decades ago.

Peterson Zah, during his tenure as Chairman of the Navajo Tribe, 1986.
The Denver Post via Getty Images

Those patterns are apparent in a lot of items currently making the news. We rounded some of them up:

Energy colonialism takes on a green hue. In the Northwest, developers hope to build a massive pumped hydropower energy storage facility along the Columbia River to smooth out the fluctuations of wind and solar power. While hydropower generation is cleaner in many ways than burning coal, this particular project could permanently destroy Yakama Nation cultural property, as B. “Toastie” Oaster reports in High Country News. And yet federal regulators and arcane procedural rules have kept the tribe from providing any meaningful input. It’s not just one project, either: Some three dozen renewable energy projects have been proposed for the Yakama Nation’s ceded lands, potentially representing a new wave of “green colonialism.”

Coal is on life-support, but lawmakers refuse to let it die. Some utilities are choosing to retire aging coal plants that are no longer profitable: The massive smokestacks of the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona were blown up a few years back, and the same fate awaits the recently retired San Juan Generating Station in northwestern New Mexico. Coal plants in Wyoming, Utah and Montana are also scheduled for retirement in coming years. But just when it seems as if coal-power madness is collapsing, someone jumps in to try to prop it up.

Some examples: The city of Farmington, in cahoots with an upstart firm named Enchant Energy, threw oodles of taxpayer cash at a failed scheme to keep the San Juan plant cranking away by installing carbon capture — and reaping taxpayer-funded federal subsidies. Utah lawmakers are taking a similar tack as they attempt to block the retirement of the giant Intermountain Power Plant in the central part of the state; they hope Enchant Energy will take over the polluting behemoth and use it to power a data center. And in Wyoming, lawmakers are hoping to keep the state’s oversized coal mining industry afloat by forcing utilities to consider — and ratepayers to fund — installing expensive, unproven carbon capture equipment on power plants that otherwise would shut down.

But just when it seems as if coal-power madness is collapsing, someone jumps in to try to prop it up.

Fighting Russian imperialism to fuel more domestic uranium mining. Speaking of government attempts to prop up dying energy industries, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators from Wyoming, New Mexico, Idaho and other states introduced a bill to ban uranium imports from Russia. The primary reason is to cut off funding for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but the bill’s sponsors also hope to jumpstart the domestic uranium mining industry, which has been in a coma for the last several years. U.S. utilities currently import more than 95% of the fuel used in their nuclear reactors, with about 14% coming from Russia and another 35% from Kazakhstan mines operated by Russia-owned Rosatom. Cutting off those sources would drive up the price of uranium, making mothballed mines in Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico more viable. That, in turn, could spark a new uranium mining boom on the Colorado Plateau.

The bid to block copper mining at Oak Flat. U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., introduced a bill this month that would block a global corporation’s plans to mine a giant copper deposit under Chi'chil Biłdagoteel, or Oak Flat, a granite-boulder-studded plateau in Arizona. The proposed mining would cause the land to subside dramatically, reducing Oak Flat — the ancestral homeland of several Southwestern tribal nations and the traditional location of San Carlos Apache coming-of-age ceremonies — to nothing more than a vast crater. Grijalva’s bill is not expected to go far in the Republican-controlled Congress, but it does carry symbolic weight. On March 21, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments in a lawsuit by a nonprofit, Apache Stronghold, that seeks to halt the land swap needed for the mining to proceed, citing religious freedom and treaty grounds. Though copper is used in electronics, homes and gasoline-powered automobiles, electric vehicles and all-electric homes use significantly more of the metal.

The lithium boom is on. Electric vehicles run on battery power and batteries need lithium — a lot of it. That has pushed global lithium demand, and prices, to all-time highs, which in turn have spurred dozens of proposals and inspired the staking of thousands of claims across the West. While most of these prospects are merely twinkles in would-be-lithium-miners’ eyes, one of the biggest and most controversial projects is now underway. In late February Lithium Americas Corp. began construction on its Thacker Pass mine in Humboldt County, Nevada, after a federal appeals court shot down an emergency motion to block the work. The Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone and other tribal nations have pushed back against the proposal because it threatens an 1865 massacre site that has deep historical, cultural and religious significance. Environmental groups have also fought the project, saying it would disrupt wildlife migration and habitat and cause other ecological harm.

Big news on the Willow Project front. If only the hunger for petroleum subsided in direct proportion to the craving for lithium. Alas, it does not. That became clear when the Biden administration gave the go-ahead this week to a scaled-back version of ConocoPhillips’ massive Willow oil and gas project in Alaska, despite strong opposition from residents and leaders of Nuiqsut, the Inupiaq community nearest to the proposed drilling site, as well as from environmentalists, who call the project a “carbon bomb.” The project has also been the target of the viral #StopWillow social media campaign. Read HCN’s story here.

Students and community members demand President Biden stop the Willow Project by unfurling a banner on the Ellipse outside the White House in December 2022 in Washington, DC.
Paul Morigi/Getty Images for This is Zero Hour

Biden paired the Willow announcement with a plan to ban or limit drilling on 16 million acres in the Arctic Ocean and the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. That didn’t seem to soothe infuriated progressives, but did draw the ire of the oil and gas industry.

 This wasn’t a clear-cut decision for Biden. Yes, it’s another fossil fuel development going forward at a time when everyone should be moving away from carbon-intensive energy sources. And, yes, like any giant oil and gas drilling project it could do irreparable harm to the landscape and the health of those who live nearby. But Biden was under intense pressure to approve the plan, not only from the usual Republicans and industry-funded suspects, but also from many Alaska Native leaders and Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola, who is Yup’ik and the first Alaska Native woman elected to Congress.  

Peltola made the case for the Willow Project in an opinion piece in The Hill, writing: “Alaskans share the desire to phase out fossil fuels. But we are hurt by the disregard that we hear from many people who talk about mitigating the energy transition’s impacts on marginalized communities while dismissing the voice of the first Alaska Native representative in Congress. … We need a plan for a real transition that does not leave our most vulnerable people freezing in the winter in places like Noatak, Alaska. … We need a bridge to fill the gap. The Willow Project can be part of that bridge.”

We want to hear from you!

Your news tips, comments, ideas and feedback are appreciated and often shared. 

The winter of atmospheric rivers: Many parts of the West are getting pummeled by snow and rain and deep powder and even deeper floodwaters. For an upcoming segment of Landline, we’ll be exploring about what this winter’s deluge means for the West’s spring snowpack and its (believe it or not) still-ongoing drought. We’d love to hear your anecdotes, and observations and see any photos from your winter-early spring. Send then our way for a chance to be featured. Give Jonathan a ring at the Landline, 970-648-4472, or send us an email at [email protected].

Mea culpa: As many astute readers kindly pointed out, the last edition of the Landline had a major omission. I wrote: “In 2000, for example, the price for a pound of live cattle was $70; today it’s $165.” Uhhh … no. OK, maybe some aristocratic strain of Kobe cow fed nothing but truffles and massaged daily in Dom Perignon would go for that much, but none of us regular folk are going to pay that kind of money, even for a really nice steak. I inadvertently left out the decimal points, obviously. It should have read: “… the price for a pound of live cattle was $0.70; today it is $1.65.” On the one hand it’s a big difference. On the other hand, the point I was trying to make is unchanged: The price of beef has more than doubled in the last two decades while the fee for grazing on public land has not changed at all. Thanks to everyone for keeping me on my toes.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands. 


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