Desmurger: Tribal energy an opportunity not to be missed

To get back into the swing of things after Thanksgiving, let us take this short mathematical quiz.

Your country is going through a severe economic crisis.

To get back to your pre-recession unemployment rate of five percent, you need to create 11 million jobs.

A particular community in your society has been hit hard by the crisis. Since 2007, its unemployment rate doubled. As a consequence, more than one million people have been left jobless.

Yet, this same community possesses rare resources that have the potential to not only create jobs but also make your economy “greener.”

On top of unemployment, new challenges have arisen. They include environmental degradation, climate change and energy dependence.

What do you do?

The answer sounds fairly logical and saying that no one thought about it before would be a mistake. Last year, the Obama administration invested $92 billion on alternative and clean energy as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

But the initiative seems to have brought freshly-trained green collars very little opportunities. A recent Washington Post article questioned Obama’s Green Jobs Act saying that despite considerable investment in training, infrastructure and research, economic growth remains slow and job creation is almost non-existent, be it green or not.

But has the money been put into the right hands?

American Indian and Alaska Natives represent 4.9 million of the U.S. population. One out of four Native Americans live below the poverty line. Indian country also records the highest unemployment rate nationally. A recent Economic Policy Institute study found that from the first half of 2007 to the first half of 2010, the unemployment rate for American Indians and Alaska Natives increased from 7.7 percent to a staggering 15.2 percent – compared to the 9.6 percent national unemployment rate.

Tribes need greater broadband access if Native entrepreneurs are to compete on an equal basis in the market with non-tribal businesses.

Yet, there is great potential to put people to work in Indian country.

Ten percent of the nation’s traditional and clean energy resources are located on tribal lands. Native communities hold 55.7 million acres of land, or approximately five percent of the U.S. land base.

The U.S. Department of the Interior reports that tribal lands have an estimated 535 billion kilowatt hours per year of wind power and 17,000 billion kWh/year of solar electricity generation potential.

A single Indian tribe in Montana is estimated to have 20,000 megawatts of wind power, sufficient energy to heat and light two million American homes. Reservations in the Great Plains have a combined wind power potential exceeding 300 gigawatts at full wind, or half the entire installed electrical generation capacity in the United States.

Considering future demand for greater domestic use of energy resources, green jobs for American Indian and Alaska Natives have the potential to significantly decrease poverty in tribal communities.

In 2009, the State of New Mexico passed HB 622, the Green Jobs Bonding Act, which explicitly included tribes in green jobs training programs. Later that year, the Navajo Nation Council passed legislation to create the Navajo Green Economy Commission to develop local green energy strategies and secure and allocate investments in the green economy.

Building an economy that reconciles growth with the environment is a feasible and profitable objective. An investment of $30 billion per year in renewable energy has the potential to boost the nation’s gross domestic product by $1.4 trillion by 2020. The increased demand for renewable energy is, therefore, an opportunity that shall not be missed.

Of course, the story isn’t as simple as it seems. Certain conditions need to be met if green jobs are to reach their full potential in Indian country while benefitting the national economy.

Tribes need greater broadband access if Native entrepreneurs are to compete on an equal basis in the market with non-tribal businesses.

Between 1990 and 2000, Indian country economies grew at a faster pace than the broader U.S. economy because of investment in tribal sovereignty. So, as long as the fuel economy is not localized, community empowerment – and economic development – is not likely to happen.

Marion Desmurger is a student at Murdoch University in Australia and is part of the Global Environmental Journalism Initiative.