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Renewable fuels, energy efficiency offer culturally appropriate job prospects


WASHINGTON - When Daniel Wildcat announced a ''red alert'' from Mother Earth at the National Museum of the American Indian's Live Earth event July 7, he wasn't thinking first and foremost about jobs. He was issuing an urgent summons to save the planet from an environmental crisis that ''might honestly be called global burning.'' He identified the cause as a combination of powerful technology and its unwise application to nature, undermining human companionship with their unique ecological settings.

''Too many of our leaders unrealistically think humankind stands above and independent of the rest of the natural world,'' Wildcat, a scholar teaching at Haskell Indian Nations University, of Euchee descent, offered in a written version. ''This misguided notion holds that humankind can always rise above the forces of nature through our rationality and use of technology. This is wrong.

''Fortunately, tribal elders possess world views and life-ways [including technologies] closely tied to the unique environments where they have lived.

''Many Native peoples continue to find their identities, cultures, in the broadest sense, and most important life lessons in the landscapes and seascapes that they call home: their indigenous knowledge emerges from their natural environments. Their main message is that nature and culture cannot be divorced - that biological diversity and cultural diversity are inextricably connected.

''... As new ways to thrive in life-enhancing cultures are sought out, Native traditions and world views must be acknowledged.''

The brevity of Wildcat's allotted time in a tight schedule, on what was essentially an occasion for advocacy, prevented any chance to explore the nuts and bolts of this acknowledgment. But at an energy conference in Washington in mid-July, and in follow-up interviews afterward, a vanguard advocate of renewable fuels development for tribes made a case for the practical role of Native culture in rescuing the environment. Dean Suagee of the Washington law firm Hobbs, Straus, Dean and Walker, citing an array of research, said the energy industry's response to global warming and other factors are adding to the incentives tribes can rely on as they consider renewable fuels development. But in the big picture, he added, investors still want to finance big projects for large-scale energy users, and most tribes are not large-scale energy users.

So tribes have got to continue injecting themselves into the national conversation on energy as a way of having an impact of the kind Wildcat envisioned, but also to attract investors. Wildcat and Suagee seem to come together in their thinking here: the unique local environments of tribes, and the cultural imperatives they give rise to, as described by Wildcat, can in Suagee's view produce renewable fuels development that generates prosperity, and makes their local environments more self-sufficient in energy.

Although the full incentives tribes need for local renewable fuels development are still in formation, Suagee said the new jobs that will come of the energy industry's transition will number about 3 million. They will be jobs based in the United States, and a portion of them can be jobs created by tribal governments. Renewable fuels should be thought of as a ''wedge'' made up of multiple approaches, Suagee said, a diversity of possibilities for a diversity of tribes - biomass (wood and undergrowth from thinned forests), biofuels (from agricultural byproducts), solar and photovoltaic heat, and above all, now wind energy.

New law, including authority for tribes to transfer a share of their tax break (as governments) to investors in return for equity, is needed to improve the incentives for tribes and their investors to lay transmission lines from tribal wind towers to the national energy transmission grid, Suagee said. Federal agencies are already empowered to purchase electricity generated by tribes, but it has to be transmissible at a profit, under long-term contracts, before investors will come forward. In the interim, tribes can improve their energy efficiency and launch a learning curve with only a single wind tower.

Energy efficiency is another alternative for tribes. In particular, tribes can lead a trend toward ''green building'' through incentives for energy-efficient construction in the Native American Housing and Self-Determination Assistance Act. ''We know how to build buildings so they use no energy,'' Suagee said, adding that it's relatively easy to build so that homes use close to zero total energy. Energy efficiency, however, is the hardest component of reduced use to implement. State governments all but abandoned the cause in the 1990s, opting instead to push retail competition with its predictable surge in energy usage. Tribal governments on the other hand, acting on a different philosophy, have the authority to force adoption of energy-efficient building codes. And they can reduce their use of gasoline through new approaches to land-use planning. Little assistance is available for tribes that seek efficiencies in their fuel use, according to Suagee. ''We need a step-by-step guide for tribal governments,'' he said.

Taken altogether, Suagee believes the steps of energy efficiency and renewable fuels development can lead tribes to a leap forward in job creation - as well as an exemplary step back for us all from the brink of ''global burning.''