Fawn Sharp has a message for big oil: Time’s up

Quinault Nation President Fawn Sharp speaking at the meeting of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians meeting in Portland Monday. (Mark Trahant photo)

Mark Trahant

Sharp says threats from climate change are growing and tribes need the resources to develop a new strategy

PORTLAND, Oregon -- Fawn Sharp has a message for big oil: Time’s up.

The president of the Quinault Nation told delegates to the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians Monday that tribal governments have the sovereign authority to regulate and tax big oil as a response to climate change.

Sharp and other Washington tribal leaders promoted a ballot measure last year, the Clean Energy Initiative, that would have charged fossil fuel companies $15 a metric ton for pollution. That money would have immediately invested hundreds of millions of dollars in renewable resources. The idea seemed popular. One poll a month before the election showed a majority of voters favored the idea.

Sharp said tribes led on the measure because other governments were not willing to take the steps necessary. She told the digital publication Crosscut: “During my presidency, I’ve had to declare four states of emergency,” Quinault President Fawn Sharp said, describing declining salmon populations and rising waters forcing village relocation. “For Quinault, [combating climate change] is about survival.”

But that was before the fossil fuel industry spent some $31 million rebranding the initiative as something that would cost each consumer. The advertising turned a tax on an industry into a tax on consumers. After the election the Seattle Times put it this way: “Though opponents were largely bankrolled by the oil industry, Dana Bieber, the spokeswoman for the No on 1631 campaign, called the election results a “clear victory for working families, consumers, small businesses and family farmers across our state” against what she called a “costly, unfair and ineffective energy tax.”

Washington voters turned down the measure by 56 to 44 percent.

Sharp said she was pretty down. Then her children told her to keep fighting. “That was all I needed to hear, that the next generation said, ‘we've got to keep fighting.’”

The next fight leaves the state of the equation. It calls on tribes to use sovereign authority to regulate and tax fossil fuels. Tribes in Washington are co-managers of salmon and other treaty resources with the state of Washington. And climate change is already destroying salmon, so the logic is tribes could use the legal system to force the fossil fuel industry into making investments to protect the species.

“It's something that's on my heart,” she said. “It's something I believe we have the ability to do and it's something I think we must do. I believe tribal nations can stand on our own foundations and we can unilaterally assess a fee on the fossil fuel industry.”

She said legal scholars have told her that tribes could fight where tribes have treaty rights in usual and accustomed places. If all the tribes are involved, the U&A areas have a larger footprint than the state of Washington.

She said tribes should sue the fossil fuel industry for the “absolute collapse of our fisheries.” She said that largest corporations, ExxonMobile, and other fossil fuel companies have internal documents about the science of climate change.

As Scientific American reported: “Exxon was aware of climate change, as early as 1977, 11 years before it became a public issue … This knowledge did not prevent the company (now ExxonMobil and the world’s largest oil and gas company) from spending decades refusing to publicly acknowledge climate change and even promoting climate misinformation — an approach many have likened to the lies spread by the tobacco industry regarding the health risks of smoking. Both industries were conscious that their products wouldn’t stay profitable once the world understood the risks, so much so that they used the same consultants to develop strategies on how to communicate with the public.”

In litigation those documents could be used to show that the companies knowingly damaged a tribal treaty right.

She said threats from climate change are only growing and that tribes are not getting the resources needed to invest in a new strategy, including money from the federal government. “So we are going to hold corporations accountable as our resources continue to decline.”

“Tribal nations have standing,” Sharp said. “We're not getting the dollars to manage our fisheries, we're not getting the dollars to combat climate change.”

She said there used to be a cycle for fishing. “We have had highs and lows. It's no longer a cycle of fisheries. It's a downward spiral. And we have to declare a 2019. We are reaching back tipping point in the climate discussions. “

The time is now and “we will aggressively defend our identity,” the “legacy of our ancestors” because no one has the right to take away what the Creator has gifted us. “We will hold these large corporations accountable. So stay tuned. The fight is continuing and we're going to get even more aggressive. We're more determined and we're going to take big oil down.”

Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter - @TrahantReports

Email: mtrahant@IndianCountryToday.com