Indian Country is Divided on Mining Coal, Drilling for Oil; More Clashes Ahead

Many Native nations united to oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline because of its impact on Mother Earth and its threat to sacred water. But Indian Country is divided on fossil fuel development. Some tribes are mining coal and extracting gas as a source of jobs, income, and autonomy.

That said, Native rights will continue to clash with energy companies’ expansion plans and Trump administration energy policies.

The issue was put front and center for me after watching the documentary Red Power Energy at the Augsburg Native American Film Series earlier this year. The film highlights the different paths taken by various reservations regarding whether or not to mine and drill on reservation lands. According to the film’s discussion guide:

Red Power Energyis a provocative film from the American Indian perspective that reframes today’s controversial energy debate while the fate of the environment hangs in the balance. Red Power Energy illustrates the complex realities of Indian reservations grappling with how to balance their natural resources with their traditional beliefs.
From tribes mining coal, drilling oil and fracking natural gas to a coalition of tribes and individuals building sustainable wind farms and small-scale residential solar, the film showcases an engrossing story about America’s indigenous population reclaiming their right of self-determination,
I recommend the film.

A recent New York Times article, Tribes That Live Off Coal Hold Tight to Trump’s Promises echos this theme:

When thousands of Native Americans converged near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation last year, their stance against the Dakota Access oil pipeline became a global symbol of indigenous opposition to the pro-drilling, pro-mining agenda that Mr. Trump adopted.

But some of the largest tribes in the United States derive their budgets from the very fossil fuels that Mr. Trump has pledged to promote, including the Navajo in the Southwest and the Osage in Oklahoma, as well as smaller tribes like the Southern Ute in Colorado. And the Crow are among several Indian nations looking to the president’s promises to nix Obama-era coal rules, pull back on regulations, or approve new oil and gas wells to help them lift their economies and wrest control from a federal bureaucracy they have often seen as burdensome.

But make no doubt about it, clashes and lawsuits will continue over Native rights and the extractive industries. As we noted in our earlier blog, this debate is coming to Minnesota, see: Stop Enbridge Line 3 — Minnesota’s Version of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Further, Indian Country Media Network’s article, Northern Cheyenne Sue to Block Coal Mining on Public Lands, reports that the Northern Cheyenne Nation has filed a lawsuit challenging the federal government’s recent decision to lift the moratorium on public land coal leases. That decision “could disproportionately affect their Montana reservation, yet omitted the Tribe from any notice or consultation,” the Times said.

The Northern Cheyenne reservation sits in the midst of approximately 426 million tons of coal, and pending coal leases that can now move forward. The tribe’s March 30 lawsuit said coal mining near the reservation would cause “significant environmental and socioeconomic harms to the Tribe.” Such mining would ultimately destroy the traditional way of life they have fought to preserve for centuries, Tribal Council Chair and President Jace Killsback said.

And Native News Online.Net reports on this tribal victory: Federal Judge Rules in Favor of American Indian Plaintiffs: Natural Gas Line Ordered Removed from Land.

OKLAHOMA CITY – In a major victory for American Indian land rights, a federal judge on Tuesday, March 28, 2017, ordered Enable Midstream Partners and its affiliates to remove a natural gas pipeline from 38 American Indian land owners’ property near Anadarko, Oklahoma. A tract of the land is part of the Kiowa Tribes of Oklahoma. …

Between 1980 and 2000, Enable operated the pipeline on Plaintiffs’ land pursuant to an easement granted to it by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (“BIA”). The Court found that Enable’s easement expired in 2000, yet Enable continued operate the pipeline without an easement, putting it in trespass and leading to the filing of Plaintiffs’ lawsuit.

The energy company had continued to use the easements even after they expired, in spite of landowner wishes that they stop.

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