Tribes respond to presidential withdrawal from climate pact

200609 DSCN1702 Disintegration of Anderson Glacier.jpg
A glacier on Mt. Anderson in the Olympic Mountain Range is gone as a result of climate change. Quinault President Fawn Sharp says that’s a clear sign that something is wrong. Four tribes said they would implement the Paris agreement even though President Donald J. Trump said he’s out. (Photo by Larry Workman of Quinault Nation.)

Protecting Mother Earth and tribal homelands

Trahant Reports

President Donald J. Trump announced last week that the United States was pulling out of the Paris agreement on climate change. That agreement includes every country in the world except Nicaragua, Syria … and now the United States.

The problems related to climate change are  enormous — so the thinking goes — and the best course is a planetary response.

But nearly every government will be involved, including tribal governments.

Shortly after the president’s announcement four Native Nations announced their plans to support the Paris agreement.

“For hundreds of years the pollution based economy has degraded our home,” states Swinomish Chairman Brian Cladoosby in a news release. “We can no longer allow a failed system to continue to destroy the planet.  The Paris Climate Change Agreement reflects the global consensus that we must act together and we must act now.”

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the Quinault Indian Nation, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, and the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska said they will fill the vacuum and take aggressive action to protect the places we call home. The tribes said in a news release that climate change touches all aspect of life, from those who have no voice, the salmon, buffalo, seals and polar bears, to those who are suffering the impacts of water loss, shoreline erosion, drought and loss of homelands and waters.

Across North American tribes see climate change, or global warming, as real, human-caused, and something that is changing life right now.

The Quinault Nation is already experiencing an increase in ocean storm surges that requires the Lower Village of Taholah be relocated because of flooding and a potential catastrophe if there were to be a tsunami.

FAWN 2013.jpg
Quinault President Fawn Sharp. (Photo by Larry Workman, Quinault Nation.)

Tribal President Fawn Sharp said: “We are talking about human lives here, and regardless of who is in office the fact is the federal government is our trustee … This responsibility is constitutionally mandated, and it’s not something the President or anyone else can wriggle out of.”

“Climate change is the definite direct cause of many other challenges as well, not just for us here at Quinault but for all citizens,” she said. “When a critically important glacier that’s thousands of years old totally disappears in a matter of a few years, it’s a sure sign that something’s wrong. And that something is man-caused climate change. The same goes for the massive algal blooms and the, warm areas and acidification problem in the ocean, the increased forest fire danger, slide and erosion  problems, invasive species  and low flows in our area rivers. These are very serious problems.”

Last year the Bureau of Indian Affairs awarded $8.7 million for tribal climate change projects for 63 tribes. But more than 200 tribes applied for the program and the Trump administration says it is ending all federal spending on climate change programs.

The president said that withdrawing from the agreement will support more energy resource development, including a revival of the coal industry. And a couple of weeks ago Vice President Mike Pence toured a working coal mine on the Crow Reservation promising new jobs. But that might be an impossible dream. The job losses in the coal industry have more to do with the low price of natural gas and changing global markets.

Standing Rock Chairman Dave Archambault II says his tribe is actively moving away from fossil fuels. “Indigenous communities around the world are among those being most quickly and severely affected by climate change. Regardless of the official position of the United States administration, we will continue to stand together in agreement with the Paris Climate Change Agreement,” Archambault said. “Our tribe is actively working to move away from fossil fuels and we continue to battle those who disregard our efforts to protect our water and lands.”

People living in Alaska are also already seeing impact of a warming planet. “Alaska tribal governments are living with the early but significant effects of climate change. Our traditional knowledge learned over millennia within our aboriginal lands leaves us with no doubt that immediate action to reduce the impacts of climate change is our duty as sovereign indigenous governments,” states Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska President Richard Peterson, “such, we will seek to participate in the Paris Climate Change Agreement.”

This might be a moment for tribes to engage in global diplomacy. In the news release, Sharp said: “When we get a seat at that table people in this country who understand the climate change problem might be able to convey their concerns through us at the international level. We might also be able to sign on to the Paris Agreement. We are looking into that possibility. So it is possible that even though the US has backed out of that historic agreement, the tribal governments  from throughout the country could help fill the void,” said President Sharp.

 

 

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

IMG_0073 2
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

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