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Suagee: Tribal sovereignty and the green energy revolution:

At the Sovereignty Symposium in Oklahoma City June 3, the keynote speaker, T. Boone Pickens spoke about the Pickens Plan for meeting America’s energy needs. He said his standard response to people who criticize his plan is to ask them, “What’s your plan?” He said most don’t have one.

Although he was talking to a gathering of tribal leaders and lawyers, he did not specifically suggest that each tribe should have its own plan. After that keynote address, I participated as one of the speakers in a panel “The Climate Crisis: Tribal Governments and the Green Energy Revolution.” Of course, as one of six concurrent sessions, we had only a fraction of the audience that heard Pickens.

According to his Web site, there are four basic components of the Pickens Plan, including: creating millions of jobs by expanding wind power to the point where it contributes about 22 percent of our electric power, and also expanding solar electricity generating capacity; upgrading the national electric power grid (i.e. the smart grid); providing incentives for improving the energy efficiency of residential and commercial buildings; and using natural gas to replace oil in many kinds of vehicles, including 18-wheelers. The site doesn’t provide much in the way of details, and I’m the kind of person who likes details. In generalities, I agree with the big points, although I think that for personal motor vehicles, plug-in electric hybrids are likely to become the standard rather than natural gas vehicles.

There are four basic components of the Pickens Plan, including: creating millions of jobs by expanding wind power to the point where it contributes about 22 percent of our electric power.

My point, however, is not to endorse or debate the Pickens Plan, but rather to suggest that it is important for tribal governments to have their own energy plans. Since so much economic activity in America involves the use of energy, and since the marketplaces in which energy goods and services are bought and sold have been shaped by governmental policies, unless tribal governments plan and implement policies to ensure tribal communities participate in the green energy revolution, I am afraid they will get left out.

Fortunately, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act includes funding that tribes can use to develop energy strategies, particularly the Energy Efficiency and Block Grant program administered by the Department of Energy. This program was authorized in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, with a statutory two percent set-aside for tribes.

The Recovery Act appropriated some $54 million for block grants to tribes. DOE announced the availability of these funds, along with the allocation for each tribe. These grants are not competitive, but tribes have to apply by June 25. (Information is available on the DOE Tribal Energy Program Web site.) A wide range of energy efficiency and renewable energy activities can be carried out with these grants, but the first step is to have an “energy efficiency and conservation strategy.” Any tribe that does not have such a strategy can use these grant funds to develop its strategy.

Many states and cities have energy plans. The federal government has been providing assistance to states for energy planning for about three decades. In many cases, such plans have been developed or revised as part of a climate action plan. Many cities have been doing climate action planning as part of a campaign led by an organization known as ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability – formerly International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives.

In the era of the climate crisis, an energy plan must also be a climate action plan, or at least part of a climate action plan. Since global warming is mostly driven by carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels, a climate action plan must include strategies to reduce reliance on fossil fuels through energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies, as well as by using other governmental policy tools such as land use planning to reduce reliance on motor vehicles.

Unless tribal governments plan and implement policies to ensure tribal communities participate in the green energy revolution, I am afraid they will get left out.

A climate action plan might also include a strategy for adaptation to the impacts of climate change that are likely to occur even if we manage to achieve substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. This is an aspect of climate action planning that is going to be of critical importance for tribal cultures – as the web of life is disrupted by global warming, the plant communities and animal populations are going to change. In non-Indian America, however, climate action planning has mostly focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. After all, we know how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and we know that doing this through energy efficiency and renewable energy creates jobs.

I became aware of the leadership of ICLEI a year or so ago. Last year about this time, I was helping to plan an event sponsored by the American Bar Association Section of Environment, Energy and Resources. As part of the annual fall meeting, in addition to continuing legal education programs, we also sponsor an educational public service project in a school in the metropolitan area where the meeting takes place.

In September 2008, the fall meeting was held in Phoenix, and we held the public service project at the high school on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. The project was a mock public hearing on the development of a tribal climate action plan. In searching for materials we could use to develop handouts for the students, I found a Climate Action Handbook developed for the U.S. Conference of Mayors by ICLEI and the City of Seattle. We need such a handbook tailored to tribal governments. We do not yet have one, however, and now the federal government is finally providing funding to tribes to develop energy efficiency strategies. Tribes may find the mayors’ handbook a worthwhile reference in developing their own green energy plans. As tribes develop their own plans, I suggest we collaborate in developing a handbook for tribal governments.

Dean Suagee is an attorney of counsel to Hobbs, Straus, Dean & Walker, LLP, Washington, D.C., and is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. E-mail him at dsuagee@hsdwdc.com.