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Groups press for tribe-friendly renewable energy policies

WASHINGTON – As more tribes explore and get involved in the renewable energy field, a network of tribal groups is asking President-elect Barack Obama to support tribally owned and operated renewable energy projects, along with economic development initiatives that could reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

“The Obama economic stimulus plan that incorporates a green economy and green jobs portfolio must include provisions for access of these resources by our Native nations, our tribal education and training institutions and Native organizations and communities,” according to a policy statement released jointly Dec. 17 by the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy, the Indigenous Environmental Network, the International Indian Treaty Council and the Honor the Earth environmental group.

“When considering energy production, resource extraction, housing and energy efficiency, it is essential that the incoming administration takes into account the disproportionate impacts of climate change and energy development on American Indian reservations and Alaska Native villages, and the potential for catalyzing green reservation economies.”

The groups represent approximately 250 grassroots tribal organizations and tribes that want to ensure American Indian participation and prosperity in the green economy of the future.

The statement says that federal government subsidies for the nuclear, coal, gas and oil industry should be rapidly phased out with a proportional ramp up of subsidies for renewable technologies and locally administered conservation and efficiency improvements.

Under current federal law, tribes are not directly entitled to credits provided to non-Native developers for renewable energy production. This has created a system where outside companies sometimes think twice about teaming with tribes on renewable energy projects, since, if they do so, the federal government does not allow for a full tax credit.

“Projects involving technologies like wind power could stand on their own if none of the energy sectors got [federal] subsidies or incentives, but there are already billions of dollars built into coal, gas and coal subsidies,” said Bob Gough, a leader with Intertribal COUP.

“To compete against them, renewable energy technologies require subsidies as well. You can’t artificially keep the price of energy down, and then expect new kinds of technology to bear all the costs.”

The groups are pressing for changes to subsidy laws to make them more tribe-friendly, and also say that any climate change legislation should not allocate funds for nuclear or clean coal technologies, as they believe those practices are often harmful to the Earth and to tribal interests.

The policy paper specifically asks that policymakers provide a renewable production refund for tribal projects that can’t utilize current tax credits, as well as offer financial matching grants to capitalize renewable energy potential in tribal communities.

The organizations believe that a new crop of tribal renewable projects, which would be assisted by the legislative changes they seek, would provide dual benefits of low carbon power and green economic development where it is needed most.

Support for legislative action involving tribes and energy is based on the following research gathered by the groups:

• Tribal lands have an estimated 535 billion kWh/year of wind power generation potential.

• Tribal lands have an estimated 17,000 billion kWh/year of solar electricity generation potential, about 4.5 times the total U.S. annual generation.

• Investing in renewable energy creates more jobs per dollar invested than fossil fuel energy.

• Efficiency creates 21.5 jobs for every $1 million invested.

• The costs of fuel for wind and solar power can be projected into the future, providing a unique opportunity for stabilizing an energy intensive economy.

In sum, members of the tribal network believe that forward thinking energy and climate policy will have the ability to transform tribal and other rural economies, while also providing a basis for an overall economic recovery in the U.S.

Gough estimated that close to 100 tribes across the country have already assessed or are currently assessing the wind and/or solar energy resources that are available on their lands. Some of the tribes, including those in the Plains and Southwest regions, have found that their renewable energy resources rank among the most abundant in the U.S.

Tony Skrelunas, an America Indian program director with the Grand Canyon Trust environmental group, said that it will be important in 2009 for tribes to continue banding together to make their energy interests well-known to federal policymakers.

Skrelunas, a member of the Navajo Nation who used to manage the tribe’s economic development operations, said many tribes are now savvy on energy issues, and have evolved to the point where they want strong federal policies put in place to help them harness their power. His group plans to help convene several tribal renewable energy players early in 2009 to focus on national strategies.

“There are a lot of issues that have to be worked out and laws that need to be clarified,” Skrelunas said. “And the tribes have to be the ones championing this. The tribes have to be the ones going to Congress saying they want these laws changed.”

Skrelunas said he is looking forward to what the Obama administration brings forward regarding tribal energy issues.

In terms of tribal economics, many energy experts say that renewable projects could create a more stable business model than, say, the development of casinos alone.

“One of the issues facing economic development with casinos is that you need to have a number of customers – you need to have a large population market to draw on, but that’s not always the case for remote reservations” Gough noted.

“Whereas, it doesn’t matter how many people want to use the electricity you’re able to produce from a wind turbine in a rural area, you can serve thousands and thousands and thousands of customers from across a whole region.”

Gough said he hopes to see dozens more tribal renewable energy projects up and running by the end of 2009.