Tribes have differing views of coal
By Levi Rickert
During last year’s presidential election, the coal industry garnered headlines because of Donald Trump’s promises to bring back coal jobs. Job creation and retention on tribal lands throughout Indian Country can be challenging for a variety of reasons, including remote locations and lack of infrastructure. Some Indian reservations have unemployment rates near 50 percent.
Other tribes, however, have concerns about the environmental impact from coal mines. The situation of several tribes outlined in this article shows how different tribes can have different viewpoints.
When the Navajo Generating Station, located on the LeChee Chapter of the Navajo Nation near Page, Arizona, announced its closing, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye began putting pressure on the White House and Congress for assistance. The Navajo Generating Station is fueled by low sulfur bituminous coal from Peabody Western Coal Company’s Kayenta Mine, located 78 miles to the southeast.
The Navajo Generating Plant and the coal mine have created more than 900 jobs, most of which are filled by Navajo and Hopi tribal citizens. These jobs provide some of the best opportunities available on the Navajo Nation where the unemployment rate is 47 percent, according to President Begaye.
Navajo Generating Station
The Navajo Generating Station is the largest coal-fired power plant in the western United States. Salt River Project (SRP), the utility group that manages the Navajo Generating Station, says the coal-fired power plant is no longer economically viable because natural gas that fuels its other plants can be purchased cheaper.
Revenue generated from the power plant provides 20 percent of the Navajo Nation’s annual general funds.“The money in that fund pays for our social services—education, emergency services and keeping our roads paved and safe,” Begaye says. “Any subtraction in our budget will have critical consequences for my people.”
“Our unemployment rate already exceeds 47 percent,” Begaye says. “There will be over 900 direct plant jobs and an additional 2,300 indirect jobs lost with this closure.”
The Navajo Nation comprises the largest reservation in America, with almost 200,000 Navajo Nation citizens living on the reservation in parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
The primary goals of the Navajo Nation are to renew its lease and explore ways to keep the generating station open until 2029, Begaye said. The shutdown would have a devastating impact because 40 percent of the tribe’s budget and infrastructure is tied to revenues generating from both the power plant and the Kayenta mine.
If the plant closes, Begaye is asking the Department of Interior to guaranteed access to transmission lines for development purposes.
“We are exploring options to develop solar, wind and other renewables of which we will need access to the transmission lines on our land in order to export it,” he said.
The tribe is also seeking the rights to water and minerals on Navajo land, including uranium, and coal.
Northern Cheyenne Tribe Fights
the Federal Government
An estimated 30 percent of country’s coal reserves west of the Mississippi River are on tribal lands. In Montana, the Crow Tribe and Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation are located near 426 tons of coal at the Decker and Spring Creek mines.
A New York Times article in April described how a slowdown at the Absaloka mine has caused economic devastation for the Crow Tribe, which laid off 1,000 of its 1,300 employees. Regulatory uncertainty under the Obama administration was one of the reasons cited for a slowdown at the mine.
On March 28, President Trump signed an executive order to create energy independence that rolled back some federal regulations created during the Obama administration.
Vice President Mike Pence visited the Crow mine in May and said the “war on coal” is over.
However, the day after the president signed an executive order in late March opening federal lands for coal leasing, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe filed a lawsuit challenging the president’s action.
The tribe criticizes the Trump administration for not consulting with tribal leaders and “without analyzing the potential cultural, environmental, and socioeconomic impacts that the coal leasing program could have on the tribe, its members, and its lands.”
The tribe contends that coal mining near their reservation has adverse health impact on its tribal citizens.
“It is alarming and unacceptable for the United States, which has a solemn obligation as the Northern Cheyenne’s trustee, to sign up for many decades of harmful coal mining near and around our homeland without first consulting with our Nation or evaluating the impacts to our reservation and our residents,” Northern Cheyenne Tribe President L. Jace Killsback states. “We’re asking that if there is development around our reservation with the Crow’s border, there is some consideration, some respect to look at the impacts it would have on our community—environmentally, economically, socially, and culturally.”♦
Coal tax credit legislation introduced
U.S. Sens. Jon Tester (D-Montana) and Steve Daines (R-Montana) in April introduced legislation to permanently extend the Indian Coal Production Tax Credit (ICPTC).
The ICPTC is a crucial tax incentive to level the playing field for future development of tribal coal resources that are currently subject to more regulatory requirements than comparable development on private, state or federal lands, the senators said in a press release. ICPTC credit protects the economic viability of existing tribal coal mining projects, which support much-needed tribal jobs and provide a major source of non-federal revenue for coal-producing tribes.
ìThe Indian Coal Production Tax Credit helps create good jobs and increases self-determination in Indian Country,î Tester said. ìIncentivizing more responsible natural resource development on tribal lands will create high-paying jobs, strengthen tribal sovereignty and help produce more revenue for local schools, law enforcement, and infrastructure.î
ìThe Crow Tribe in Montana has the potential to develop 10 billion tons of coal on their reservation,î Daines added. ìIndian Coal production creates good-paying jobs in Indian Country, generates significant non-federal tax revenue to support essential services, and enables tribal self-determination.î
The Senate legislation is also co-sponsored by U.S. Senators John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota).