The new deal for tribes: Resource extraction & toxic waste (minus the jobs)

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No coal here. The Native Village of Tyonek, Alaska, celebrated the suspension of a project by PacRim Coal. The tribal community is located some 45 miles west of Anchorage. PacRim estimated the project would have mined some 242 million tons of coal. (Trahant file photo)
Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

A couple of years ago a tribal leader showed me an abandoned lumber mill near the village of Tyonek, Alaska. The company promised jobs. And, for a time, for a couple of decades, there were those jobs. But after the resource was consumed, the mill closed, the company disappeared, and the shell of the enterprise remains today.

This same story could be told in tribal communities across North America. Sometimes the resource was timber. Other times gas and oil. Or coal.

The lucky communities were left with a small toxic dump site. More often there was major cleanup work required after (plus a few more jobs). And in the worst case scenario, a Superfund site was left behind requiring government supervision and an even greater restoration effort.

But all along, and in each case, the accompanying idea was that jobs would be a part of the deal.

There would be construction jobs to build the mine, pipeline, or processing plant. Then there would be truck driving jobs moving materials. A few executive jobs (especially in public and community relations) and, of course, the eventual supervision of the cleanup (especially if the tribal government had its own environmental protection agency.)

That was the deal. But it’s one that is no longer true. Now the resource is extracted, pipelines are built, and toxic waste is left behind … while the promised jobs are limited to the initial construction jobs.

The renewed effort to build the Keystone XL pipeline is a classic example of this shift. When President Donald J. Trump signed the executive order to approve the project he promised “thousands of jobs.” That’s true enough for the construction phase, but only 35 employees would be needed to operate the pipeline, according to the State Department report.

Keystone, at least, is prospective jobs. New ones. But the bigger challenge for the Navajo Nation, the Crow Nation and some thirty tribes with coal reserves or power plants is that new deal for resource-based plants and extraction does not create as many jobs.

The numbers are stark.

The U.S. Energy and Employment Outlook 2017 shows that electricity from coal declined 53 percent between 2006 and 2016. Over that same period, electricity from natural gas increased by 33 percent and from solar by 5,000 percent.

Coal is still a major source of energy. But it’s in decline. Coal and natural now gas add up to two-thirds of all electricity generation in the U.S. And that’s expected to remain so until at least 2040 when the market share declines to a little more than half.

But because it’s a market that’s going down it means that tribes that develop coal will not share in the rewards of either major profits or in a spike in jobs.

The only hope for this shrinking industry is to export the coal to other countries (something that will be extremely difficult because so many other nations have already agreed to the Paris climate targets). As Clark Williams-Derry has reported for the Sightline Institute:

“Robust, sustainable Asian coal markets were never a realistic hope for US coal exporters: the transportation costs were too high, the competition too fierce, and the demand too unstable. So the coal industry’s PR flacks may continue to spin tales about endless riches in the Asian coal market, the financials are telling a much more sobering story: that the coal export pipe dream continues to fade away, leaving a bad hangover on the coal industry’s balance sheets and a lingering bad taste in the mouths of coal investors and executives alike.”

On top of all that, Derry-Williams points out that China’s coal consumption has fallen for three consecutive years.

And the international context is that coal is the most polluting of the three types of fossil fuels. More than 80 percent of the world’s known coal reserves need to stay in the ground to meet global warming targets.

There are jobs in the energy field, but, as the Department of Energy report puts it: “Employment in electric power generation now totals 860,869 … (and) the number of jobs is projected to grow by another 7 percent but the majority will be in construction to build and install new renewable energy capacity.”

graph of U.S. net electricity generation and coal production, as explained in the article text

The green economy is taking over. (Trump or no Trump.)

The extractive economy (much like the farm economy a generation ago) reached its peak, probably back in 2014. Oil and gas employed 514,000 people. Today it’s 388,000. Coal and extraction related jobs peaked at 90,000 and now that number is about 53,000.

Then Indian Country’s development of coal (or not) has been the story so far in the Trump era.

Last month Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed a memorandum lifting restrictions on federal coal leasing. He said the “war on coal is over.” Then he quoted Crow Tribal Chairman Darrin Old Coyote saying, “there are no jobs like coal jobs.”

A day later the Northern Cheyenne Tribe filed suit. The tribe said the Interior Department did not consult it prior to lifting the restrictions. “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 said in a news release. There are 426 million tons of coal located near the Northern Cheyenne and on the Crow Nation.

Meanwhile in Alaska, another coal project was put to rest in a tribal community. The village of Tyonek has been opposed to the Chuitna Coal Project. (Previously: Mother of the Earth returns to Tyonek) After a decade of planning, PacRim Coal suspended the project last month because an investor backed out.  The project could be brought back to life. But that’s not likely. Because coal is a losing bet for any investor.

According to Alaska Public Media that meant a joyful celebration in Tyonek.  The president of the village Native Council, Arthur Stanifer said, “What it means for us is our fish will continue to be here for future generations, also our wildlife, like the bears and the moose and the other animals will be secure and they’ll be here. They’ll have a safe place to be.”

And what of the jobs? That’s the hard part. The prospects for extraction-related jobs are about to be hit by even more disruptive forces. For example in the oil fields of North Dakota one of the great paying jobs is truck driving. Moving material back and forth. But already in Europe companies are experimenting and will soon begin the shift to self-driving vehicles. It’s only a matter of time before that trend takes over because it fits the model of efficient capitalism. Self-driving trucks don’t need rest breaks, consume less fuel, and fewer accidents. That same disruption of automation is occurring across the employment spectrum. Jobs that can be done by machines, will be.

So if jobs are no longer part of the equation, does natural resource extraction benefit tribal communities?

The answer ought to include a plan where the United States government and tribes work together to replace these jobs: Retrain workers and invest in the energy sector that’s growing, renewable fuels. But that’s not likely to happen in Trump Era.

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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#NativeVote16 – A graphic guide to the Republican National Convention


#NativeVote16 – A champion for change will be on South Dakota’s ballot

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Henry Red Cloud is the Democratic candidate in South Dakota for Public Utilities Commission. He is an entrepreneur that builds solar energy projects. (Photo via YouTube.)

The Year of the Native American candidate

Mark Trahant / TrahantReports

It’s easy to dismiss this election. Every day there’s more news about something outrageous that was said by a presidential candidate. Grab the remote. Click. It’s gone and and ignore.

But that’s only one way to think about the 2016 election. Flip the narrative and this is the most interesting and exciting election ever. Especially for American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Just look across the country at the sheer number of Native Americans candidates challenging the status quo in races from county commissions to Congress. This much is certain: This is the year of the Native American candidate. If it’s also the year of the Native American voter, well, look out, innovation is ahead.

I have always thought many people with experiences in Native communities have a lot to offer the broader community. I often see creativity and innovation.

South Dakota Democrats nominated Henry Red Cloud as the party’s nominee for a spot on the state’s Public Utilities Commission. Red Cloud, Lakota is the founder and owner of a renewable energy company based in Pine Ridge. “Lakota Solar Enterprises is located on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, home to the Oglala Sioux Tribe,” the company’s web page says.  “We believe that reducing our dependence on fossil fuels is important. And on tribal lands, it is imperative. We hope you will join us in helping tribes achieve energy sovereignty.” He calls renewable energy “a new way to honor old ways.”

His company, and associated nonprofit, do that by installing real solar systems into people’s homes. But Red Cloud has said he sees these projects beyond (as important as it is) sustainable energy. He sees this as a route to build a stronger economy within tribal nations.

This is a great story to tell during an election campaign. Voters will be introduced to a creative and innovative energy path that’s creating real jobs now, employing people to build and install solar energy systems. Contrast this with the usual discourse about energy or the nonsense about how climate change isn’t real.

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President Obama honored Red Cloud for his work in 2014 as a “Champion of Change.”

Red Cloud told The Associated Press he is “honored” by the nomination and is “eager to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing consumers and utility companies in South Dakota.”

The South Dakota Public Utilities Commission in January certified the Keystone XL pipeline route through the state. The agency said at the time that if a presidential permit is issued, and then “the pipeline is built, the PUC will monitor the progress to ensure the construction conditions are met.” In other words: This is a critical agency for pipelines and energy planning.

And, unfortunately, this is where that presidential race creeps back into the process. The next president could think differently about Keystone XL than President Obama. Plus there is a new challenge based on free trade.

But this is also why this election is so important. Red Cloud is running for the regulatory post and next door, Marlo Hunte-Beaubrun, is seeking a seat on the three-member North Dakota Public Services Commission.  The Public Service Commission regulates the oil and gas industry as well as telecommunications, weights and measures, and pipelines. In January the agency approved the Dakota Access Pipeline. (Previous: Pipelines, rail cars, and the price of oil.)

Red Cloud and Hunte-Beaubrun are two of five Native American candidates across the country running for statewide office. And on the front lines (or is that the front desk?) of making decisions about pipelines, energy policy and climate change.

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 /


Sleeping with your phone? A peek at Internet trends


Do you sleep with your phones? Check during the night? Peek first thing in the morning? A look at Internet trends and opportunities for Indian Country.

Indian Country’s future will be shaped by how we use technology


Do you sleep with your smart phone? Or first thing the next morning, even during the night, do you peek to see what’s new? If you are a Millennial — between 15 and 35 years old — the answers are likely, yes. 

Every year author and digital analyst Mary Meeker presents her view of Internet trends. Turns out Millennials look at the world differently, starting with the way they see smart phones. Nearly nine-in-ten (87 percent) say their phone never leaves their side and 80 percent say it’s the first thing they look at after waking.

I don’t have numbers for Indian Country but given the lack of universal Internet or even cell phone service, I am sure that the numbers are lower. That said: Just by looking at Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and other social media, it’s clear Indian Country Millennials are similar in their use of social media. (Remember Indian Country’s population skews younger than the general population.)  Meeker says the digital trendsetters are young, 12 to 24, and that group already has different tastes. Facebook, for example, is slightly less important as a medium than it was a year ago while Instagram, Snapchat and even Twitter are growing. Meeker reports that adults spent about 2.7 hours a day with digital media in 2008. Today that number is at 5.6 hours and more than half of that access is via a smartphone.

Perhaps it’s easy to dismiss these numbers as fun and games. But these trends will define much of Indian Country’s future. And there are huge implications for tribal governments — as well as for individuals. The three digital trends I think most important:  The demand for more (and better) data; a need to rethink governance; and, the end of geography as a barrier.

First, let’s explore data.

Indian Country already has a data gap. Many of our statistics, ranging from unemployment to health metrics, are unreliable and out of date. Now, think about how the world works in the data age. Our cell phone knows: Where we are at every moment, how many steps we take, who we call and how long we talk. Facebook learns about our behavior patterns and our friends. When we search a location on Google, we start seeing ads for hotels and B&Bs. (Privacy deserves more debate. Funny thing: When the government collects data people raise hell. When a digital producer collects far more personal information, we’re usually the source of that data.)

We need better, faster data collection in Indian Country. A few years ago a BIA official had to testify with a series of “I don’t knows” about unemployment because his report was unreliable.  That’s too often the case. The National Congress of American Indians says when it comes to data, Indian Country is often the “asterisk nation” because the information we see is scant and presented as a footnote.

Second, we need to rethink governance.

So many of our laws, tribal, state and federal, are written for an era that no longer exists. One of the trends that Meeker identified is the growth of people working in flexible or supplemental jobs. More than a third of the workforce (some 53 million people) is now made up of independent contractors, temporary employees, individual business owners, freelancers, or moonlighters. Nearly 70 percent of those surveyed say that “social networking has drastically changed the dynamics of networking.” (I am very much a part of that trend, officially a moonlighter, experimenting with a new business model.) So what will it take to get tribal laws in sync, and further encourage these trends? Meeker’s report says too many laws are written in a world where business is business, and “so what happens when a person becomes a business?”

There is a similar opportunity for government services. Most are designed for people who come into the office or telephone. But if mobile connections are 24/7, then so should government. The reason why apps work well on mobile phones is that you can access information with your thumb. There’s no need to look up a long Internet address. The Navajo Nation has a couple of apps rounding up a lot of information. That’s a good beginning. But eventually governments will need to think of the mobile as the primary connection for citizens, ranging from utility payments to voter registration.

The third trend is the lifting of geography as a barrier. 

In the digital world location does not matter. A business can operate successfully anywhere there’s a good connection to the Internet. The retail site Etsy is a good example. According to Meeker’s research, 35 percent of Etsy sellers started a busienss without much capital (compared to 21 percent of all small business owners). It’s the perfect space for authentic Indian art. Stephanie Pinkham, Nez Perce, sells  high quality Northwest beaded vests and other crafts. Or rent a Navajo hogan in Chinle or near Shiprock on AirBnB. Or one day text Uber and get a ride into a border town. 

The important thing is that we are at the beginning of the digital transformation. Then, American Indians and Alaska Natives have a long history of adapting to new technology. This is just a new and exciting chapter — especially if you’re reading this on your phone in bed.

Mark Trahant 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.


State of Indian Nations: Unlocking digital tools in Indian Country to build a new economy

January 26, 2015

It’s time for State of the Unions. President Barack Obama, of course, on Tuesday. Then, a variety of state reports across the country. And, on Thursday, Indian Country’s national version, the State of Indian Nations. National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby spent about an hour talking about some of the challenges facing the more than five hundred tribal governments.

“Today, I bring a simple message from the tribes of the 21st Century: We must tear down barriers to growth, simplify regulations that are limiting opportunities, and acknowledge that tribes have the capability as governments to oversee our own affairs,” Cladoosby said. “Congress and the administration need to find ways to help bring federal agencies out of the 19th Century and into the 21st Century.  We need them to be partners for growth and not barriers to growth.”

President Cladoosby’s talk covered much ground — a lot of material critical to tribal governments, such as rethinking the federal-trust relationship, an invitation for leaders of Congress to visit Indian Country, and for Washington’s NFL franchise to finally, finally, change its name.

I’d like to expand on two themes from the State of the Indian Nations speech — youth and technology.

The most common age in America today is 22 years old. This year, 2015, the Millennial Generation will pass the Baby Boomers as the largest-age group in the country. Indian Country is even younger than the rest of the nation. The American Indian Alaska Native population from birth through age 24 makes up 42 percent of the total Native American population (compared to about a third for country as a whole.)

We are at a moment in history where we really ought to be investing more resources in young people. Yet, instead, as President Obama said in his State of the Union, we’re loading up this generation with student debt — a total that now exceeds a trillion dollars. This is the logic behind the president’s call to make community college free. A proposal that will benefit Indian Country, including tribal colleges and universities.

But this is also about technology. We need a structure to prepare people for jobs that don’t yet exist.

This is what President Cladoosby said: “The last technology census of tribal nations took place before Google, Twitter, or smart phones even existed.  The best data we do have indicates an ongoing digital divide. While 73 percent of Americans have access to broadband, in Indian Country, it’s only 10 percent …

“We need a comprehensive and updated study of our technology needs to advance more common sense initiatives like this one to increase our participation in the Digital Age.”

We do need more information. The Digital Age doesn’t look like it did even ten years ago. Back then “The Facebook” was a new startup — and certainly not much of a presence in Indian Country. Today Facebook is in most homes, on our phones, and a presence linking Native America in ways that television networks never did. On social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Native Americans are creating, telling stories, and building communities. This is just the beginning of this digital age.

It’s not just social media either. It’s a whole of commerce, activity, and potential.

So what does it mean? Well, once we figure out how to unlock these digital tools we will never again be faced with watching our children leave a community just to get a job. We can create our own jobs. Anywhere. In a village in Alaska, a reservation in Montana, or, yes, in a city. But the choice will be ours.

But for that to happen we need to prepare young people better. They need to have a bundle of tools, ranging from computer science to video production.

Some of this preparation starts with schools. Helping young people get basic skills in math, science and writing. But much of this Digital Age starts with imagination.

The beauty is that we now live in a world where storytelling is a value. And that’s a value that Indian Country already understands and has for thousand of years.

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.