‘It’s like rolling the dice’
Thu, 04/06/2017 - 12:37pm admin
Tribes that live off coal hold tight to Trump’s promises
By Julie Turkewitz, The New York Times
The pale yellow halls of the Crow government building are nearly empty these days, with 1,000 of this tribe’s 1,300 employees recently laid off.
Across the way, Rebecca Ten Bear Reed of Crow Agency and her children have no running water. And past the nearby grassy hills, families live a dozen to a home, playgrounds have fallen to tatters and this tribe of roughly 13,000 people is now turning to President Trump’s promise to revive coal for its future.
“This is the worst I’ve ever seen it. Ever,” said the tribe’s chief executive, Paul Little Light, explaining that revenue had dwindled as the Crow’s main resource fell from favor. “A lot of people are not Trump fans here. Very few. But we would be his best friends if he brought back coal.”
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.
The president’s executive order on Tuesday, which called for a rollback of President Barack Obama’s climate change rules, is a step toward some of these goals.
At the tribes’ side is Ryan Zinke, who as the new interior secretary is charged with protecting and managing Indian lands, which hold an estimated 30 percent of the nation’s coal reserves west of the Mississippi and 20 percent of known oil and gas reserves in the United States.
In a recent interview, Mr. Zinke noted that he was once adopted into the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes and said he would help native nations get fossil fuels to market.
“We have not been a good partner in this,” he said. “The amount of bureaucracy and paperwork and stalling in many ways has created great hardship on some of the poorest tribes.
“A war on coal is a war on the Crow people,” he continued. “President Trump has promised to end the war.”
Stripped of other resources, many tribes have had to rely on pit mines and oil pads to fund their budgets. This has bred conflict within not only Indian nations, but also individual hearts, with people torn between revenue that feeds their children and a deep commitment to protecting the environment.
Complicating the matter is the coal market. Although Mr. Trump has promised to revive the industry, power plants across the country are switching to cheap natural gas, leaving no guarantee that his policies will bring money back into tribal bank accounts.
“Unless there is severe restriction of natural gas production, there is not much U.S. coal can do to expand its market in the U.S.,” said Ian Lange, director of the mineral and energy economics program at the Colorado School of Mines.
Under the Trump administration, some native nations are asking for help as they work toward other revenue streams, including renewable energy. Others are seeking greater control of their own land, so they can create their own rules on harmful activities related to development, like gas flaring and wastewater dumping.
“It’s about sovereignty,” said Mark Fox, the chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara, a tribal nation north of the Standing Rock reservation that has seen a boom in oil and gas.
Here on the 2.3-million-acre Crow Indian Reservation in southern Montana, at least half of the tribe’s nonfederal budget comes from a single source: a vast single-pit mine at the edge of the reservation, called the Absaloka, which sends brown-black coal by rail to Minnesota’s largest power plant.
The Absaloka opened in 1974. It operates all day every day, employs about 170 people and has left a complex legacy. The work – shoveling coal dust, hauling through the night in trucks – is grueling.
But on the reservation, coal royalties, taxes and mine salaries have funded college educations, weddings and much-cherished homes with ponies corralled in the back. A coal payment every four months of about $225 to every tribal citizen puts food on tables, warm jackets on backs and gifts under Christmas trees.
Ms. Ten Bear Reed, the mother without running water, recently used her coal payout to buy a hot bath at a local motel. Normally, she sponge-cleans at home.
“I care about the environment, I really do,” said Ms. Ten Bear Reed, 37, who is raising two children on a $9-an-hour casino job. “But when you see that money, then you don’t care. Because you’re getting the thing you need.”
Mr. Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which called for coal-fired power plants to reduce emissions, threw the future of the Absaloka mine, and the Crow budget, into question, said Kenneth Brien, the tribe’s energy director. Already, coal revenue here has dwindled, contributing to the tribe’s current economic crisis.
“I want to make this clear: Obama was a great president,” Mr. Brien said. But his energy policies, he said, “would have devastated the tribe.”
In November, Big Horn County, which contains most of the reservation, cast 1,833 votes for Mr. Trump and 2,061 for Hillary Clinton, going significantly more Republican than it had in recent years. “Under Trump,” Mr. Brien added, “the door is opening.”
In 2013, the tribe made a deal with Cloud Peak Energy for a second coal mine, the Big Metal, which could bring $10 million to the Crow in the project’s first five years. Cloud Peak hoped to export that coal to Asia through a proposed terminal in Washington State. That terminal was vetoed by the Army Corps of Engineers under Mr. Obama, but Crow leaders hope to reopen the discussion.
One of the first tests of Mr. Trump’s commitment to coal could come in his administration’s response to the Navajo and Hopi, who derive millions of dollars from a coal-fired power plant nestled amid red rocks in Arizona, as well as an associated mine.
In February, operators of the plant, called the Navajo Generating Station, voted to shut it down at the end of 2019, 25 years ahead of schedule. The move could leave 1,885 people without work, counting associated jobs, said a Navajo spokesman, Mihio Manus.
“We’re in chaos over this whole plant closure,” said the Navajo president, Russell Begaye, who is asking the federal government to take majority ownership of the plant and keep it running as the tribe develops other revenue. The federal government is one of several current owners.
“Back up what you’re saying about coal,” Mr. Begaye said, addressing Mr. Trump. “Give us 10 years.”
In the small, rectangular homes that dot the Crow reservation, hope for Mr. Trump’s administration is also accompanied by fear.
Tribal leaders are acutely aware of the need to diversify their economy. They have begun selling local bison meat, and hope to break ground soon on a hydroelectric project. There is talk of building a cement plant and solar and wind farms. But none of these endeavors are bringing in meaningful revenue at the moment.
At the same time, Mr. Trump has proposed cutting the budget of the Interior Department by 12 percent and the Health and Human Services budget by 18 percent, which could shrink services from Meals on Wheels to reservation law enforcement, education and health care.
Many here have also taken offense at comments made by Mr. Trump about minorities, including Native Americans, leaving them doubtful that he has their interests at heart.
And the president’s pro-fossil-fuel agenda has plenty of opposition from other tribes. The Northern Cheyenne, living on a reservation adjacent to the Crow, have rejected offers to mine their coal since the 1970s, despite persistent poverty. This past week, they filed a lawsuit challenging the administration’s decision to lift a moratorium on new coal leases.
“It was a cultural stand,” said L. Jace Killsback, the president of the Northern Cheyenne. “We’d really be contradicting what our ancestors stood for, we’d be contradicting the reason why the Creator made us, and that was far more important to us than having a coal mine on our reservation.”
Many people on the Crow side, when asked about Mr. Trump, speak about him as a long-shot gamble, with past disappointments not far from memory.
“We don’t know Donald Trump,” said Henry Old Horn, 74, a Crow elder. “All we know is that he’s a good, successful businessman. And we also know that he’s not your typical politician. It’s like rolling the dice. Who knows, he may be our savior.”