Congressional budget plan requires deep cuts in Indian programs

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Budget targets $246 million below last year’s committee levels, says Democrat on House Interior Appropriations

MARK TRAHANT / TRAHANTREPORTS.COM

House and Senate negotiators have reached a deal on a budget resolution. That agreement then would go to each House for a vote. (An outcome that is not certain.) But, if it passes, it would be the first budget enacted by Congress in six years.

Let’s be clear about this plan: It would require deep spending cuts in federal Indian programs.

While the budget itself is not law, it sets limits for each of the appropriations committees to follow. According to a report from The Associated Press the draft document adds some $40 billion to military spending and calls for deep cuts to all domestic programs, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service.

“The plan sets broad budget goals but by itself has little teeth; instead, painful follow-up legislation would be required to actually balance the budget,” the AP said. “It also permits the GOP majority to suspend the Senate’s filibuster rule and deliver a special measure known as a reconciliation bill to Obama without the threat of Democratic opposition. Republicans plan to use the special filibuster-proof bill to wage an assault on Obama’s Affordable Care Act rather than try to impose a variety of painful cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, student loans, and other so-called mandatory programs over Obama’s opposition.”

The House budget is blunt about the next steps required to balance the budget within a decade, including another repeal of the Affordable Care Act. “None of the reforms proposed in this budget will be able to solve the underlying challenges in our health care system so long as Obamacare remains on the books. Our budget fully repeals Obamacare,” according to the budget plan.

This very notion sets up a debate. President Barack Obama would need to sign any appropriation into law — so a veto threat has merit. But the Congress still must pass a bill to appropriate money that would defy their own budget rules on programs such as the Indian Health Service (because some of that agency’s authorizing legislation is the Affordable Care Act. Remember: The Indian Health Care Improvement Act is a chapter of the ACA.)

So the actual final budget is going to be difficult to resolve.

At the same moment that the Congress is pursuing its latest “repeal” of the Affordable Care Act more states, even states controlled by Republicans, are moving forward with an expansion of Medicaid. This may be the most important part of the Affordable Care Act, especially for Indian Country because it’s adding new dollars to the underfunded health care system. Montana is the latest state to expand Medicaid.

A new report by the Kaiser Family Foundation says hospitals in states with Medicaid expansion are reporting a significant decrease in uncompensated care and a boost from Medicaid revenue. “Overall,” the report said, “hospitals in Medicaid expansion states saw increased Medicaid discharges, increased Medicaid revenue, and decreased cost of care for the poor, while hospitals in non-expansion states saw a very small increase in Medicaid discharges, a decline in Medicaid revenue, and growth in cost of care to the poor.”

In past budget years, American Indian and Alaska Native programs have been able to get support from the appropriations committees, but in this cycle there will be less flexibility because of the instructions in the budget. The ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Nita Lowey from New York, said the “Majority’s allocations, which are based on the House budget resolution that passed on a party-line vote, are insufficient and fundamentally flawed.”

She said: “The Interior bill’s allocation paints a similar picture with an allocation that is $246 million below the FY 2015 enacted level. We will still have to cover the increased costs to combat deadly wild fires, provide contract support costs in the Indian Health Services, and prepare for Centennial anniversary of the National Park Service, all from an allocation below last year.”

This budget resolution would cut deeper than even the sequester. As Lowey said in a press release, “I think my colleagues on the other side generally agree that sequestration was a failure, and a return to those sequester-level caps threatens important defense and non-defense priorities alike.”

The Republicans have yet to identify specific spending numbers based on their budget targets.

No Democratic votes are required in either the House or the Senate to enact this budget resolution. The president does not need to sign the resolution, but he will need to sign into law any future appropriations based on the spending plan.

Mark Trahant serves as the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

Writing day.


Working on post about Congress’ budget and potential impact on Indian health programs that are linked to Affordable Care Act.

Budget resolution does not require Democrats nor the signature of President Obama.

Op-Ed post: Medicaid expansion will boost Montana’s economy, people

Montanans love to talk about how special our state is. For those from some place other than Montana, you may think that we mean our beautiful mountains, the vast golden prairies, and incredible blue sky that never seems to end. And you would be right – we do mean that. But what really makes Montana special is the people.

The people of our state are kind and generous. We are the type of people who celebrate together during the good times, and look out for each other when times get tough.

Montana is particularly lucky because the people can dramatically change the direction and future of our state. Over the last few months, it was clear that the people of our state stepped up and did just that. They talked and our legislature listened. Late last week, the Montana Legislature passed the Health and Economic Livelihood Partnership (HELP) Act (SB 405). This bill is compromise legislation to extend health care coverage to low-income Montanans who need it, and the Governor has indicated that he will sign it as soon as it reaches his desk.

We are a group of organizations that have spent the past two and a half years working to expand access to affordable health care for the lowest-income Montanans. And we will forever be grateful to you, the people of Montana, for making your voices heard.

It was you who made more than 10,000 calls and emails to your legislators in support of Medicaid expansion. More than 150 of you submitted letters to the editor and opinion editorials. More than 300 of you came to the Capitol to testify. You kept the conversation going on social media. Hundreds of you came to rally on the Capitol steps or walk the halls talking to your legislators. It was you who passed Medicaid expansion.

Montana will be a better place because you made your voices heard. This legislation will help create thousands of new jobs. Montanans will be healthier and more productive because when people have health care, medical problems are more likely to be treated earlier and illnesses are less likely to affect one’s ability to work. Our rural hospitals will be able to keep their doors open because more people will have insurance to cover medical expenses. Montana tax dollars will come back to our state to boost our economy. And most importantly, tens of thousands of Montanans will be able to get the health care they need and deserve.

Never forget that when you talk – and sometimes it has to be loud and often – but if you talk loud and often enough, your elected representatives will listen.

Montana thanks you.

Sincerely,

Montana Women Vote, Montana Human Rights Network, Montana Budget and Policy Center, Montana Primary Care Association, American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, Montana Organizing Project, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana, Western Native Voice, SEIU 775, MHA…An Association of Montana Health Care Providers, and AARP Montana.

Updates: Medicaid expansion in Alaska, Montana — and oil prices.

MARK TRAHANT

Montana will be the next state to expand Medicaid. Gov. Steve Bullock is expected to sign the bill authorizing expansion into law on Wednesday at noon.

Remember this is a Republican-controlled legislature — so I think it demonstrates that when people really look at the numbers, the number of jobs, the number of people insured, the reduction in uncompensated care for health facilities, the case for expansion is overwhelming.

The Montana Budget and Policy Center reports that there remains work to be done. From the Center’s post: “Next, the state will have to submit a section 1115 waiver to the federal government to expand coverage and receive increased federal funds. Section 1115 waivers allow states to pursue experimental, pilot, or demonstration projects that promote the objectives of Medicaid, namely to keep low-income families healthy. (It’s called “1115 waiver” for short, because of the section in the Social Security Act where this flexibility is provided.)” That process will require approval from the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (or CMS). “The 1115 waiver process is an important step, and we will be closely following it. 70,000 Montanans are depending on it.”

The Montana Budget and Policy Center also submitted an op-ed for publication. I’ll post that shortly.

Western Native Voice reports: Native Americans working for progressive change in Montana Indian communities will rally before the Medicaid expansion bill signing ceremony Wednesday, April 29th, at 11:30 AM on the stairs of the Capitol. Coming together to celebrate Medicaid expansion and all the other important legislative achievements for Montana Indians, the rally will also focus on the road ahead to building civic power in Native communities

In Alaska the outcome over Medicaid expansion is still unknown. The Alaska Legislature has not been keen on expansion despite a push from the Gov. Bill Walker.

The Republican strategy against Medicaid expansion focuses on reimbursement rates for Medicare, pitting seniors against those eligible for Medicaid (including the Alaska Native medical system). What’s interesting to me is that the job picture has not been a part of the debate when the evidence in every other state that has expanded Medicaid is that new jobs were added.

Two other Montana legislative developments: Enacting a water rights settlement and improving the funding for tribal colleges. The new law authorizes an 8% increase to the per-student funding that tribal colleges receive for non-Indian resident students, subject to appropriations, changing the distribution rate from $3,024 to $3,280 per non-Indian student. This is the first increase to the statute since 2006.

“In Montana, tribal colleges and universities benefit the state economy and provide an affordable option for quality post-secondary education,” said Laura John, State-Tribal Policy Analyst for the Montana Budget and Policy Center. “House Bill 196 takes us one step closer to reaching adequate funding levels needed to support Montana’s non-tribal students.”

The governor called the legislature back into special session. So there will be more twists and turns ahead.

I also wrote a few weeks ago about price of oil and its impact on Keystone, the tar sands, and other debates over energy policy versus the environment.

Two pieces are worth looking at. First, a Brookings report that says low oil prices are here to stay. (The reason is simple: Excess capacity, reduced consumption and lots of oil being pumped by every concern.) As the report points out: “The U.S. and its neighbor Canada have both increased oil output, and their response to the fall in oil prices has been to reduce the pace of production growth by reducing capital investment, but output and capacity continues to grow.”

Today Bloomberg posted five charts that tell the story quickly.  “Before deciding prices will race back to $100, here are five charts worth keeping in mind.”

Native American youth and a million lines of code

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have lunch with youth from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe at We The Pizza/Good Stuff Eatery in Washington, D.C., Nov. 20, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have lunch with youth from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe at We The Pizza/Good Stuff Eatery in Washington, D.C., Nov. 20, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Investment in Native youth equals a million lines of code

MARK TRAHANT

No child grows up hearing — or asking — for numbers. Instead the four words, “tell me a story,” are the ones deeply embedded into our human software. And that will never change. But the power of numbers, the importance of data, is growing exponentially and becoming essential to how we understand larger narratives.

Then this is not new. The use of statistics, counts, numbers, all have always been a part of how we tell stories. Buffalo hide paintings are great examples from another century. Pictographs recorded people, buffalo, soldiers, villages, and meteor storms. The data was recorded.  Then we did the same things with ledgers, books, computer tapes, and a couple of decades ago floppy discs, CDs, and thumb drives. Today we carry more data capacity in our phone than we ever had in our offices and homes. And what’s on that recording? IBM once estimated that the content of all of human history totaled some 5 exabytes (or five billion gigabytes of information). Now we produce that many videos, pictures, and words every couple of days.

We need more useful numbers — and this is one of Indian Country’s great challenges in an era of both austerity and transparency. In 1900 the Bureau of Indian Affairs budget was $8.2 million. It took nearly 80 years before that funding level topped a billion dollars. Then the first $2 billion was  in 2001. Last year $ 2.6 billion. And the Obama administration’s current request is for $2.924 billion. (I am working on a history of Indian appropriations — more on that soon.)

So I have been thinking about these numbers in the context of the recent narrative about Native youth. The stories themselves are inspiring, starting with the president’s visit with young people in North Dakota, followed by the recent meeting at the White House. As First Lady Michelle Obama put it: “So we all need to work together to invest deeply — and for the long-term — in these young people, both those who are living in their tribal communities … and those living in urban areas across this country. These kids have so much promise — and we need to ensure that they have every tool, every opportunity they need to fulfill that promise.”

This is where the numbers and the story intersect.

A commitment to invest deeply and for the long-term requires serious cash and resources. The president’s budget matches that rhetoric with a budget request of $1 billion to promote Generation Indigenous, an initiative designed for Native American youth. “In today’s global economy a high quality education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity – it is a prerequisite to success,” the Interior Department said. “President Obama set out a vision for a 21st century education system grounded in both high academic standards and tribal values and traditions. Making advanced education opportunities available for tribal members is a high priority for tribes, who see education as the path to economic development and a better quality of life for their communities through an educated and skilled tribal member workforce.”

Today’s Native youth are perfectly cast for this initiative. Even on remote reservations or Alaska villages this is the digital native generation. They have grown up collecting more data on their phones — music, Facebook posts, video and photographs — than any other generation in history. They grow up connected to other Native youth across the country making deep digital friendships with dozens, even hundreds of other Native American youth. That’s new. It’s exponential.

I also think about the digital opportunity ahead for young people who live in a remote community. You can live anywhere in the world and produce videos for YouTube. Or write computer code. In 1971 a Unix computer had a couple hundred thousand lines of code. Today the software for a modern car has more than 90 million lines of code. That’s a lot of jobs for young people who have the right skills. And why not Generation Indigenous?

Of course that means Congress will have to actually appropriate the kind of dollars to make youth a priority. Not just a story, but a future that’s bolstered by real numbers.

Mark Trahant serves as the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

Millions of Montanans, Alaskans and Native Americans wait for health insurance

Alaska Commissioner Valerie Davidson, Department of Health and Social Services, speaks about Medicaid expansion and reform at the University of Alaska Southeast. (YouTube photo).
Alaska Commissioner Valerie Davidson, Department of Health and Social Services, speaks about Medicaid expansion and reform at the University of Alaska Southeast. (YouTube photo).

Millions of Montanans, Alaskans and Native Americans wait for health insurance

MARK TRAHANT

The best case for Medicaid expansion in Alaska is being delivered by Valerie Davidson. She’s the recently appointed Commissioner of Alaska’s Department of Health and Social Services and a longtime advocate for improving Native health, most recently the senior director of Legal and Intergovernmental Affairs at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

Davidson, who’s Yupik and a member of the Orutsararmiut Native Council, also chaired the Tribal Technical Advisory Group to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services from its launch in 2004 until last year. In other words: She knows Medicaid cold. She knows how it benefits a state. She understands what works for Native communities. And, she conveys complicated ideas and statistics with ease.

This is the ideal time for that kind of logic.

Alaska’s Medicaid expansion has reached a decision point. The Alaska Dispatch News reported Tuesday that the governor is threatening a veto unless the Legislature takes on Medicaid reform and expands eligibility under the Affordable Care Act. (Update: The Alaska Dispatch News reports that Republicans are planning a caucus vote to kill the measure for this session.)

At a recent speech in Juneau, Davidson ticked off five reasons why Medicaid expansion makes so much sense.

First, it would expand health care insurance, thus improving health access for at least 42,000 Alaskans. Second, expansion would add money — and jobs — to a state that could use both right now. Third, expansion improves the state’s budget situation by adding more than a billion over the next six years. Fourth, it could be a catalyst for reform. And, fifth, expansion addresses uncompensated care.

Uncompensated care is perhaps the most important part of the Medicaid debate and it does not get a lot of attention. Even if government were to eliminate Medicaid or other insurance, people would still have health care costs. Someone always has to pay.

“We all end up paying for those uncompensated care costs. We pay through increased premiums. We pay for them when a hospital has to increase what it charges everybody else,” Davidson said. She said the hospitals provided more than $90 million worth of uncompensated care in Alaska.

Nationally the figures are huge. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimated uncompensated care at $84.9 billion in 2013. Most of that was paid for by hospitals (who pass the cost along to paying patients) and community-based clinics and health centers.

But here is the thing: The states that have expanded Medicaid are seeing the cost for uncompensated care figure dropping dramatically, saving those states some $5 billion.

The Indian health system has its own version of uncompensated care. We all understand and see the Indian Health Service as the government’s fulfillment of its treaty promises made to tribes. But the government does not fund IHS that way; the underfunding is substantial. The original Indian Health Care Improvement Act opened up new revenue from Medicare, Medicaid and other programs to add new dollars to the system.

So since the United States doesn’t fully fund IHS — and Indian Country has low insurance coverage — there remains a gap. Uncompensated care. Kaiser Family Foundation found that nearly a third, or 32 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives are uninsured, and the cost to IHS for that care was at least $2.1 billion in 2013.

That’s why Medicaid expansion is critical to improve funding for Indian health delivery — especially in states with large Native populations such as Alaska and Montana.

Reservation Medicaid Benefits

Montana’s uncompensated care is nearly $400 million, according to the Montana Budget and Policy Center.

The Montana Legislature is nearing the finish line. Last week a key House committee voted to radically amend the legislation, essentially killing Medicaid expansion. For a bit. Then the legislation made it to the House floor where it passed 54 to 42 returning it to the Senate for minor changes. Supporters are hoping the Senate will make those changes and send the bill to the governor for his signature.

When the House passed the Medicaid legislation, a conservative group, Americans for Prosperity Montana, issued a press release saying the “decision stands directly against the voices of millions of Montanans who have made it clear that they do not want more Obamacare.” That phrase, #millionsofmontanans, quickly became a hashtag on Twitter (Montana has just barely a million citizens).

But Medicaid expansion would benefit millions — Montanans, Alaskans, Native Americans, and people in other states. What makes this argument interesting is that conservatives have lost on the evidence. In state after state the research continues to mount that Medicaid expansion was the best part of the Affordable Care Act and is creating jobs and pumping dollars into state economies. A study by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation says the total amount lost for states that have said “no” is more than $423 billion.

What makes this “debate” particularly maddening is that opponents to Medicaid expansion have no viable alternative — except the system that sticks hospitals, clinics and doctors with even more uncompensated care.

Mark Trahant serves as the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

Fight for Indian health funding is at a critical juncture

Medicaid & Indian Country

Fight for Indian health funding is at critical juncture

MARK TRAHANT

One of Indian Country’s most important debates about increasing funding for the Indian health system is occurring far from Congress in state legislatures across the country. And that is unfamiliar ground to discussions about Indian health and treaty obligations.

The Affordable Care Act — or Obamacare as some call it — significantly expands Medicaid health insurance to more Americans, including American Indians and Alaska Natives. But the Supreme Court ruled in August 2012 that Congress could not force states into accepting the expansion. Medicaid is a state-federal partnership. So the money flows from Washington into states based on complicated formulas. The cost to states for American Indians and Alaska Natives is negligible because the federal government pays the bill. Only the states, not the federal government, determine who is eligible for the program. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have expanded Medicaid.

One study by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that in the states that have not expanded Medicaid meant that 6.7 million residents remain uninsured in 2016 and these states gave up $423.6 billion in federal Medicaid funds from 2013 to 2022, which shrinks both economic activity and job growth.

Two states with large native populations are considering Medicaid expansion now: Alaska and Montana.

The Montana Budget & Policy Center estimates some 70,000 people would be eligible for the insurance and some 19,000 American Indians. Tuesday a House committee killed the Medicaid expansion bill, but according to the Helena Independent Record there remains a chance the bill could go directly to the House floor for a vote.

Legislators in Juneau are also considering Medicaid expansion this week. The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium estimates that expanded Medicaid would cover 40,000 Alaskans adding more than $1.1 billion and 4,000 new jobs.

There is new data that shows just how effective Medicaid expansion can be.

Ed Fox, tribal health director of Washington’s Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe and a health care reform expert, has estimated that Medicaid expansion would add $2 billion to the Indian health system across the country. In Washington, Medicaid expansion increased revenues to Indian health clinics by 38 percent statewide, or $14, 451,345 in additional funds, a total of some $54 million for American Indian and Alaska Native patients. Remember this is money that does not need to be appropriated by Congress. Of the 25 tribes reporting in Washington only one showed a decrease in funding and two tribes doubled their Medicaid revenue (four tribes are not included in the data).

Fox called the numbers great. The data pulled from Medicaid claims and could increase slightly. “We plan to hire 4 positions thanks to these increases:  2 Registered Nurses, one social services Case Manager, one Community Health Representative,” Dr. Fox said. “These are the good old days-perhaps. I will now have to thank both IHS and Medicaid for this opportunity to enhance services.”

He also noted now small these numbers are compared to Alaska, should the legislature expand Medicaid. “Maybe $200 million compared to $500 to $600 million for all American Indians / Alaska Natives and only $54 million is paid to WA tribes,” Fox said.

But if these are the good old days in expansion states, the flip side is increased budget pressure on states without Medicaid expansion. At a Senate hearing last May, A.T. Stafne, Chairman of the Assiniboine Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Reservation, said he still hopes for increased insurance coverage for American Indians but he remains “uncertain about implementation in Indian Country, especially in states like Montana that rejected the Medicaid expansion … Clearly there is more work to be done if the government is to fulfill its trust responsibility to provide quality healthcare to Indian people, a mandatory obligation under treaties and agreements entered into with Tribal governments.”

That quote captures the challenge: The Affordable Care Act opens up a roadmap for better funding of the Indian health system. But the rules of the road are being drafted in state capitals, one by one, especially in Helena and Juneau.

Mark Trahant holds the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

Drafting next post: Medicaid expansion numbers show huge gains for Indian health system

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Key point: Medicaid expansion fabulous for Indian health system, Wash 38% revenue increase.

Shows why expansion critical in Alaska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Montana.

Building at least one interactive map to show data, a map of Washington with reservation by reservation numbers. Average across Washington is a 38 percent increase in revenue from Medicaid.

Telling the story with numbers. (By request — posting now.)

Source of data is Ed Fox,&Ph.D., Director of Health Services for Port&Gamble S’Klallam Tribe.

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Screenshot 2015-04-05 11.02.14Screenshot 2015-04-05 10.59.30

Oil is cheap … so leave it in the ground and address climate change

People are driving less -- as is oil consumption. So this might be the ideal time to address climate change because even oil companies have an incentive to leave oil in the ground. (Trahant photo)
People are driving less — as is oil consumption. So this might be the ideal time to address climate change because even oil companies have an incentive to leave oil in the ground. (Trahant photo)

MARK TRAHANT

Could we be nearing the moment to really address climate change?

A quick answer is “no.” Of course not.

The Republicans in Congress are hell-bent on pretending that climate change does not exist let alone agree to any shifts in policy. So they continue to fight for the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. As the House Energy and Commerce Committee tells the story, the pipeline expansion “would carry up to 830,000 barrels of oil per day 875 miles from Alberta, Canada to Steele City, Nebraska. From there, the oil would go to refineries in the Midwest and Gulf Coast. The new pipeline would also transport some of the rapidly-increasing oil production from the Bakken formation in North Dakota and Montana.”

But here is the thing: There is already a glut of oil and the idea of adding more makes no sense.

As National Public Radio reported last week “there has been some concern that the U.S. will run out of places to put it all. Some analysts speculate that could spark another dramatic crash in oil prices.” How big a decline is an unknown. NPR quotes a Citigroup analyst saying $20 a barrel is possible. Others predict a continued fall in oil, to, say, $35 a barrel. Oil is a commodity and traded on public markets. So the price depends on perception about its supply and scarcity.

One reason why there is so much oil out there is that people are using less. The Nation recently wrote that the Energy Information Administration “projected that global oil demand would reach 103.2 million barrels per day in 2015; now, it’s lowered that figure for this year to only 93.1 million barrels. Those 10 million “lost” barrels per day in expected consumption may not seem like a lot, given the total figure, but keep in mind that Big Oil’s multibillion-dollar investments in tough energy were predicated on all that added demand materializing, thereby generating the kind of high prices needed to offset the increasing costs of extraction. With so much anticipated demand vanishing, however, prices were bound to collapse.”

Report by USPRIG Education Fund says driving habits of Americans are unlikely to return to the free wheeling days.
Report by USPRIG Education Fund says driving habits of Americans are unlikely to return to the free wheeling days.

I happen to think the decline in consumption is a long-term trend. There are a couple of reasons for that. The first is that people drive less after 40 years old — and the Baby Boom is long past that. A New Direction Our Changing Relationship with Driving and the Implications for America’s Future, a 2013 report by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund found that “Americans drive no more miles in total today than we did in 2004 and no more per person than we did in 1996.”

And, while Baby Boomers are less inclined to drive, the Millennial generation is thinking about transportation differently, “driving significantly less than previous generations of young Americans. Millennials are already the largest generation in the United States and their choices will play a crucial role in determining future transportation infrastructure needs.”

Even if gas prices stay low these trends are not likely to reverse. As the New Direction report points out:  “If the Millennial-led decline in per capita driving continues for another dozen years, even at half the annual rate … total vehicle travel in the United States could remain well below its 2007 peak through at least 2040—despite a 21 percent increase in population.”

Of course Indian Country is unlikely to be included in this data. Too many reservations require driving because there are few other alternatives. And the price of gas determines how much we’ll have to spend on everything else.

And the idea of cheap gas could help sell climate action. If it’s not profitable to pump oil right now, perhaps, oil companies will find a reason to delay investments in new projects. That means leaving carbon products in the ground for a better return on investment.

This is already happening in Canada. TransCanada is giving up on plans for a new energy port and delaying one of its pipeline projects.

On Tuesday the White House said the U.S. will double the pace of carbon reduction from 1.2 percent per year on average during the 2005-2020 period to 2.3-2.8 percent per year on average between 2020 and 2025. “This ambitious target is grounded in intensive analysis of cost-effective carbon pollution reductions achievable under existing law and will keep the United States on the pathway to achieve deep economy-wide reductions of 80 percent or more by 2050,” the White House said.

And Keystone XL? I don’t see how the White House could justify this project on economic or climate grounds. And especially now because the only way to reach those targets (which most experts say is only a modest improvement) is leave oil right where it is. And now, for a moment at least, it’s the interest of oil companies to do the same.

So long live $20 oil. And let’s leave it in the ground.

Mark Trahant serves as the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.