Energy Tremors in Indian Country

Imagine if some corporation discovered coal under your house, and you were powerless to stop them from extracting it. (This is actually the case for a lot of landowners in Wyoming who don’t own the mineral rights under their property, and are now subject to disturbance by oil companies using new technologies to extract oil and gas. But that’s actually another story.) Indian tribes have been in this position for over a hundred years, with little recourse to the courts. But things may be changing.

Indian Country Today reported that Montana’s Crow Tribe took a big step in controlling their natural resources with the confirmation of Alvin Not Afraid Jr. as the director of the Crow Coal Regulatory Office. “The CCRO will assume control over the coal that has been regulated by the Department of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement,” reported the paper.

This brings a really interesting dynamic to the energy world. Indian lands have been abused for years by the Department of Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but also has as its mission the exploitation of the country’s natural resources. It is under DOI direction that forests are logged, mines are dug, mountain tops are removed, and wells are drilled. While the fraction of the nation’s coal that lies under tribal lands may be small, this action by the Crow Nation sets a precedent that may ripple across the energy field to cover oil and gas drilling in Wyoming and Colorado, and, most importantly, uranium mining on Navajo lands in the Southwest.

Many energy industry officials are counting on nuclear energy to address the dual crises of spiking oil prices and runaway carbon emissions. But uranium mining is a messy business, and the Navajo know this firsthand. Most of the nation’s uranium reserves lie under their land. And in the past, little effort was made by either Government or industry to protect aquifers, streams, “air sheds,” or the land in general from the contamination that inevitably results from uranium mining.

The Crow seemed to realize the ramifications of their action. “Today you have just participated in a history making event across Indian country,” said Conrad Stewart, Black Lodge District Representative after the confirmation.

No other tribe has exerted this much control over their natural resources, he said. The act strengthened regulatory power over Crow Coal by creating CCRO. It also created and strengthened surface mining codes on the reservation, while forming lines of communication from the regulatory office and tribal and county leaders as well, as private landowners. The CCRO will be under the direction the Office of Surface Mining, but will work independently on the reservation.

The tribes, as most people in the West know, are not subject to state law and regulation. They are autonomous nations with direct relations, through treaties, with the US Federal Government. Tribal governments could, conceivably, apply more stringent rules on mining operations than state, or even the Federal, governments do. And the DOI, I think, would be hard pressed to justify overruling the tribes on their own lands. I think this would be a good thing. If non-tribal communities saw what kind of mining regulation was possible, they might themselves feel empowered to demand it in their community through other enforcement channels.

Mining is dirty business – literally and figuratively. I don’t want to lay too much expectation on the tribes to show how to clean things up. Heaven knows the Indian Nations have suffered enough over the last few hundred years, and it is no one’s place to question them if they feel they need to do something to derive some benefit from their resources. But should they choose to consider the larger picture, they could really shake things up in the energy world.

Paul Birkeland lives in Seattle, WA, US, and develops Strategic Energy Management Systems for government, commercial, and industrial organizations through Integrated Renewable Energy.

Photo: Elly Bookman