Indian Country politics and public policy

Commentary by Mark Trahant

Donald Trump on the campaign trail. His “American First” energy policy promises more coal, gas, and oil production. (Campaign photo)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

There is probably no greater divide between Republicans and Democrats than on energy and climate issues. And right in the middle: Tribal governments, Native people who work because of resource extraction, and, well, everyone who has a stake in a healthy planet.

Last week in North Dakota the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee Donald Trump outlined his “America First” energy policy, a state he said was “at the forefront of a new energy revolution.” And the evidence? “Oil and natural gas production is up significantly in the last decade. Our oil imports have been cut in half. But all this occurred in spite of massive new bureaucratic and political barriers. President Obama has done everything he can to get in the way of American energy. He’s made life much more difficult for North Dakota, as costly regulation makes it harder and harder to turn a profit.”

But it’s not just costly regulations making profits harder to come by. It’s also market forces. And that’s the part of the story that doesn’t fit neatly into a political debate. Drive across North Dakota, as I have done recently, and you will be stuck by the huge “man camps” that were built to temporarily house oil and gas workers. Many of these camps now sit empty or near empty because the jobs have dropped as fast as the price of oil. (It’s now about $50 a barrel, up from its lows, but significantly less than what oil producers predicted.) On CNBC Wednesday Bob McNally, an industry analyst, said the energy sector will rev up again “if we see crude go back to $55-$60 level we’re going to see rigs going back to work.” And even then, he added, “the real question is how quickly they can get labor back.”

As if. 

Republicans love market forces and capitalism, except when they don’t. And the production of energy is when Republicans want government power used to force land owners to allow pipelines or major projects.

Trump, for example, called for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline because it would create 42,000 jobs and be the safest pipeline every built and “would have no significant impact on the environment.”

Even if the pipeline had approval from the United States its construction is not a sure thing. The Alberta oil fields are expensive (and dirty) and capital for the project becomes more of a problem every day. That’s markets, not over regulation. Yet another pipeline, the Dakota Access Pipeline, is sailing through most of its regulatory reviews. As soon as today Iowa could grant construction permits across that state’s farm and pasture land.

And it’s a similar story with coal. It’s not over regulation that’s wiped out coal, it’s cheaper natural gas. The only hope for that industry was to export more coal to China and that’s not going to happen because the most likely port locations are against expansion, including Northwest Treaty tribes who fear what coal dust will do to salmon. But even then: Coal consumption in China is dropping anyway and the competition from closer mines makes coal from the United States a tough bet. Again, markets, not regulation.

Yet as Trump put it: “We’re going to save the coal industry and other industries threatened by Hillary Clinton’s extremist agenda.”

Then that “extremist agenda” is climate change. Trump would cancel the Paris climate agreement that calls for countries to reduce carbon emissions. As one of the negotiators, Todd Stern, wrote in The Washington Post: “Climate change is happening now, intensively, all over the world. It’s getting worse. We can’t hope to contain it without joint global action. The Paris Agreement is our vehicle for doing that. Trump would have us walk away? Really?”

Hillary Clinton has called climate change “an urgent threat and the defining challenge of our time.” Her notion is to make energy “the world’s clean energy superpower, and ensuring no Americans are left out or behind as we rapidly build a clean energy economy.”

That’s a challenge. How do you transition energy field workers to the economy when the old jobs pay so well? 

Even beyond that challenge there is a split within Democrats about how fast to move restructuring the energy economy. Clinton’s plan calls for a decade of change, ranging from cutting energy waste to phasing out dirty fuels. And reduce oil consumption by 300 million barrels per year.

Bernie Sanders calls for an acceleration of that transition. “That means we must leave the vast majority of global reserves, coal, natural gas, oil in the ground.” He, too, says there must be investment in a transition because it’s “fair to those currently working in the energy sector, which means those workers and their families must be able to depend on safe, living wage jobs.”

It’s that transition that puts energy producing tribes in the middle. Montana’s Crow Nation says it has a treaty right to sell coal and that means a Northwest port from where that coal can ship to China.

And that’s where the divide makes no sense. Republicans, including Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, defend the Crow’s coal push. While those opposed to the port, including many Democrats and tribes, say the port should not even be considered. But no candidate, Democrat or Republican, has proposed a major federal investment to pay for the Crows (as well as other tribes and communities) to transition away from coal. Or oil. Or any other extractive resource. (Brookings suggests a carbon tax to pay for that investment.)

It’s not enough to say no more coal. There also has to be a what’s next? 

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

Reposting or reprinting this column? Please credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com

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