Indian Country politics and public policy

Commentary by Mark Trahant

A Montana coal train headed west.

Mark Trahant / TrahantReports

What if? Two words that ought to be the every day language in politics. What if we tried this? What if we did that? What if we imagined?
I have been thinking a lot of “what ifs?” when it comes to coal. Coal is a paradox for several Native American communities. The United Nations says that nearly 90 percent of proven coal reserves are “unburnable” and should be left in the ground. 
Historically the industry has created good paying jobs, but now it’s in sharp decline (Mostly because of market forces, the availability of inexpensive natural gas). Yet stakeholders — workers and even a few tribes — blame the government for too many regulations. And, on the flip side, many of those working to change the energy paradigm demand that coal be left in the ground without thinking through the consequences to families who earn their living digging or shipping coal or even to the governments who rely on the revenue. Previous: The politics of leaving coal in the ground;  Investing in coal (or better a transition away from coal). 

That’s where we begin the “what if?” thinking.

What if we could leave coal in the ground? What if we could still pay tribes for that resource and workers could benefit from the inevitable transition?
Turns out there is a solution that does both. Stephen Kass, a New York attorney who works on climate issues, suggested in the Washington Post last week that the United States buy the entire coal industry and shut it down. “Although it is not possible to estimate accurately the total cost of acquiring all of the several hundred currently operating coal-fired power plants, the Environmental Protection Agency has estimated the net benefits of the greenhouse-gas reductions under the Clean Power Plan at between $26 billion and $45 billion by 2030, not counting the substantial public-health savings from reducing coal plants’ toxic emissions unrelated to climate change,” Kass wrote. “Such savings should go a long way toward making it feasible for the government to purchase or condemn the plants, which are typically almost 40 years old, fully depreciated and only marginally profitable under current and foreseeable market conditions and environmental requirements. Moreover, because Plan A would compensate private owners for the market value of their plants, it would avoid conservatives’ claims of excessive regulation without compensation.”

This is the perfect time to buy the entire coal industry. Many coal companies are in bankruptcy; and across the board, prices are low.

And I would take this idea one step further. Some thirty tribes have coal resources, totaling  at least one third of Western coal, on lands from Arizona to Alaska. So the United States should pay the tribes with coal assets a significant sum to not mine their resource. 

Montana’s Crow Tribe has a reserve of at least 9 billion tons of coal. In making the case for coal, Crow Tribal Chairman Darrin Old Coyote told InsideEnergy: “I don’t want to be dependent on the U.S. government. We have the resources, we have the manpower, we have the capability of being self-sufficient. There’s no reason why we should be this poor.”

What if that resources were purchased? True, the cost of any buy-out would be enormous. Unless the accounting included the even more massive costs associated with climate change. Then the purchase of coal to not mine should be considered as an investment not a cost.There is precedent for paying to take coal out of production. Farmers and ranchers are paid to not farm and ranch in order for the land to recover through several programs, including the Conservation Reserve Program. This would be the same. Tribes (and individual landowners) would be compensated for their resource and the coal would stay in the ground.

The international goal of reducing greenhouse gasses requires significant changes in energy policy. We need to rethink the energy paradigm across the board from oil and gas production to what it will take to jump start more green energy sources. And all of the changes ahead will be tough politically. So what if we start that effort with a win-win-win? A win for coal owners, including tribes. A win for workers. And, a win for the environment. This is how we leave coal in the ground.

So what if? 

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

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Please credit: Mark Trahant / Trahantreports.com

                                                                                     

One thought on “#NativeVote16 – The power of ‘what if?’ Paying tribes to leave coal in the ground

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