Environment | National | Politics

Native Sun News: Senate field hearing focuses on tribes and coal

The following story was written and reported by Clara Caufield, Native Sun News Correspondent. All content © Native Sun News.

Witnesses at April 8, 2015 Senate on Indian Affairs Hearing: Eric Hensen, Chickasaw energy consultant, Harvard Research fellow; Mont. Attorney General Tim Fox; Chairman Darren Old Coyote, Crow Tribe; Jason Small, Northern Cheyenne boilermaker and labor advocate and Speaker Lorenzo Bates, Navajo Nation Speaker. Photo by A Cheyenne Voice

Opponent of coal mining upsets Crow delegation
By Clara Caufield
Native Sun News Correspondent

CROW AGENCY, Mont. –– Calling it “historic," Wednesday, April 8, Senator Steve Daines, (R-Mont.), chaired a field hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on the Crow Indian Reservation, Mont.

“The issues related to reservation coal development mean a lot to Indian country, all Montanans and Americans,” he said.

The hearing titled “Empowering Indian Country though coal, jobs and self-determination” was for the purpose of allowing real people from real places to speak about the impact of coal and proposed EPA regulations on their lives.

It focused on the Tribes that are coal producing nations including the Navajo, Crow, Hopi and the Northern Cheyenne who have vast coal reserves but have not thus far formally pursued mining. Daines welcomed the tribal witnesses, but specifically noted the absence of EPA invited to testify about the proposed Clean Power Plants and to hear about the effects on tribal coal producing nations. That Federal agency declined to participate.

Witnesses included: Lorenzo Bates, Navajo Speaker of the House, Chairman Darren Old Coyote, Crow Tribe, Jason Small, Northern Cheyenne boilermaker and labor advocate, Montana Attorney General Tim Fox and Eric Hansen, a Chickasaw energy consultant and Harvard research fellow.

Fox testified about the failure of EPA to conduct meaningful and substantive consultation with the Tribes as required by Executive Order 1317.5. “EPA failed to meet personally with tribal leaders and did not come to the reservations to look at the beneficial impacts of coal development,” he said. “Instead tribal leaders received a form letter just six days before the rule-making process was ending.”

EPA has a duty to get meaningful input from the coal-producing tribes and they failed to do that, Fox stressed. He also said that the State of Montana has joined with several other States in protesting the proposed EPA regulations due to the detrimental effect on Montana coal production.

“The Crows are citizens of the State of Montana, too,” he stressed. “What affects them affects all of Montana.”

Chairman Old Coyote said he directly discussed the proposed EPA regulations with President Obama during a recent Washington, D.C. visit, but that did not have an effect. The Crow leader was very explicit saying: “A war on coal is a war on the Crow people.”

He noted that over half of tribal revenue comes from the Apsaalooke Coal Mine on the Reservation operated by Westmoreland Resources with a workforce of 70 percent tribal members. In addition, the Crow Tribe is working to develop another mine on the reservation to tap an estimated 9 billion tons of coal reserves, the Big Metal Mines Project in conjunction with Cloud Peak Energy. Both mines now face reduced domestic markets due to the proposed EPA Clean Power Plant regulations, Old Coyote said.

Therefore, the Tribe has been working aggressively to support the development of northwest ports to ship coal to international markets, including the controversial Gateway Pacific Terminal in Washington.

“We believe this is environmentally responsible and until someone comes up with another way to feed my people, the Crow Tribe will continue to mine coal,” he said.

In spite of the coal-related employment, the Crow unemployment rate is still 47 percent, he explained.

Speaker Bates serving a fourth term as Speaker of the Navajo Legislature and past chairman of the tribal budget committee, was equally adamant about the significance of coal production to the Navajo Tribe. Coal revenues, he said, represent sixty percent of the Navajo non-federal funding and provide crucially needed jobs. In spite of coal, that reservation continues to suffer a 50 percent unemployment rate, similar to a third world country.

The Navajo Tribe, he explained operates under a four-pronged tribal Energy Policy: 1) to protect and expand current energy jobs for tribal members; 2) to expand and diversity it’s energy portfolio, including a partial transition to renewables; 3) providing Navajo people with access to electricity at competitive rates and 4) to balance traditional native values with coal production. More than 2,000 Navajos work in coal production earning the highest wages on the Reservation, he explained.

Jason Small, Northern Cheyenne Tribal member and labor advocate, spoke about the beneficial impacts of the Colstrip mines and power plants on the Northern Cheyenne where more than 125 tribal members are employed, including in the essential reclamation phase, noting that reclaimed mining lands are often more productive than pre-mining.

“In my opinion, production of coal on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation would allow us to rise out of poverty. We are now crippled by 72 percent unemployment,” he said.

Though not a formal witness, Alaina Buffalo Spirit, an outspoken opponent of Northern Cheyenne coal development later expressed her views to the media, including a local Billings TV station. Several members of the Crow Tribe were upset with her anti-coal sentiments.

“She’s not from our Reservation, so why does she have anything to say about what we do.” said Pam Spang, Crow Tribal member, wife of former Northern Cheyenne Tribal President, Leroy Spang, also a strong proponent of coal development.

Throughout the hearing, Daines reminded the audience of his efforts to renew the Indian Coal Production Tax Credit to stimulate additional reservation coal development. Chairman Old Coyote explained that in 2005 former Senator Max Baucus, (D-Mont.) created that credit at the request of the Crow, Navajo and Hopi Tribes because of the beneficial economic impact of mining on those reservations.

Eric Hensen, part of a research team looking at the impacts of tribal coal development said that the proposed tax would cost the Federal government 38 million over ten years, a “drop in the bucket” compared to the return while helping offset the massive long-term investments necessary for new coal mines. He also mentioned that tribal coal exports from the U.S. would be a minute percentage of the international demand for coal-fired production.

“They are going to get the coal from somewhere, so it should include tribal coal,” Henson said. Asked about the prospects for getting some regulatory relief, Daines said, “That is why we held this hearing. We will take this message back to Washington, DC. We hope the bureaucrats will listen to the voices of real people.”

Following the hearing, Daines and staff traveled to Lame Deer, Mont. to meet with Northern Cheyenne tribal officials who expressed concerns about federal funding for various programs. Coal, however, was not a topic of discussion at that meeting.

(Clara Caufield can be reached at acheyennevoice@gmail.com)

Copyright permission Native Sun News

Join the Conversation