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Mark Trahant

On the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote to John Ehrlichman that there was an opportunity to educate the country about global warming. "Clearly this is an opportunity to get the President usefully and positively involved with a large student movement," he wrote in documents recently released by the Nixon Library.

Over the next 50 years there has been debate, threats, and dire predictions about the future. But action? Not so much.

"This could increase the average temperature near the earth's surface by 7 degrees Fahrenheit," wrote Moynihan, then a counselor to President Richard Nixon. "This in turn could raise the level of the sea by 10 feet. Goodbye New York. Goodbye Washington, for that matter."

When President Barack Obama took office in 2009, there were more initiatives. This time a proposed “cap and trade” mechanism to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Nope.

Three years ago a coalition in Congress promoted the “Build Green,” a dramatic legislative agenda to exchange fossil fuels for clean energy. The plan was to spend $500 billion on sustainable energy projects and invest upwards of $300 billion dollars in infrastructure. Proponents promised nearly a million new jobs and a drop in carbon dioxide emissions of 21.5 million metric tons.

But the votes weren’t there, the jobs weren’t created. However because of the pandemic, emissions declined by 11 percent, mostly because so many people stopped commuting to work.

President Joe Biden’s original Build Back Better had significant aspirations, too. The numbers changed (as the president and Congress negotiated back and forth) but roughly $2 trillion would have been invested on a number of climate and social programs.

The votes weren’t there. The money wasn’t spent. The investment evaporated.

That’s what makes the Inflation Reduction Act so different.

The votes were there, a total of 51 in the Senate, including the tie-breaking “aye” from Vice President Kamala Harris.

The act, which is being touted as one of the most important climate bills ever, comes after decades of inaction, but also with a direct cost to many Indigenous communities. It’s not ideal. It keeps in place the fossil fuel infrastructure, one that benefits some tribes as owners. (The Navajo Nation is the third largest producer of coal in the U.S.) But Indigenous environmental groups wanted a shift away from fossil fuels, not a bill that's built on tradeoffs.

The House is expected to vote on the bill Friday on the comprehensive $740 billion tax and spending package that includes $369 billion for climate-related initiatives, including $463 million specifically for Indian Country.

No Republicans have said they would support the measure. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, and a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, dismissed the proposal as another “out-of-control spending and Green New Deal policies that played a significant role in causing our economic crisis in the first place.”

Democrats in the House of Representatives will again have to be in lock-step in order to get this done, even knowing that this bill is imperfect.

But in order to get to that 51st vote, the sponsors had to give oil and gas a win. Or two or three. For example: The bill requires the U.S. Department of the Interior to lease 2 million acres of federal lands onshore and 60 million acres offshore each year for oil and gas development. It then links those leases to the approval process for federal leases for renewable energy.

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Previous stories:

– 'Defining' legislation of the 21st century

A billion dollar plan to save coal

Only path: ‘dismantle coal infrastructure’

The only road to Net Zero runs though Indigenous lands

A news release from the Gwich'in Steering Committee, a grassroots group that advocates on behalf of the Arctic with Indigenous membership from villages throughout Canada and Alaska, highlights the disappointment in that approach.

“In the Arctic, we’re experiencing a warming climate at four times the rate as the rest of the world, yet Congress has chosen to ignore the health of the Arctic and the Gwich’in way of life by failing to stop this destructive and failed oil and gas program,” said Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee. “We will never stop fighting to protect these sacred lands, the Porcupine caribou, and our communities.”

But that very news release also hints at the battle ahead, the one that comes after the Inflation Reduction Act becomes law. A federal lease sale on Jan. 6, 2021, drew no major oil and gas companies. In other areas of Alaska, oil companies have backed out of leases they already hold.

“All major banks in the U.S. and Canada, along with 18 other international banks, have now said they would not finance drilling in the Arctic Refuge; and 14 international insurance companies and the U.S. insurer AIG have said they will not insure any drilling in the Arctic Refuge,” the Gwich'in Steering Committee said.

The Greater Chaco Coalition, which advocates on behalf of the Chaco Canyon region in northern New Mexico, expressed similar disappointment. A news release said: “ In tying clean energy, climate, and environmental justice investments to the perpetuation of the federal fossil fuels leasing program, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA) guarantees continued sacrifice of more sacred landscapes like the Greater Chaco region and threatens to undo any climate action progress it makes.”

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Navajo Nation Council Delegate Daniel Tso said horse trading in the legislation is nothing new because the “congressional overlords continue to sell Indigenous people down the river for the sake of energy special interests.”

But the legislation has nuance, too. One of the tools in the Inflation Reduction Act, tapping the economic arguments against business as usual from the fossil fuel industry.

“It’s an odd way to write legislation, but if that’s what it takes to pass the most important climate bill ever, so be it,” Samantha Gross, director of energy security and climate, wrote an essay posted by the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. “Fighting fossil fuel demand is the way to lower emissions, and this bill does just that.”

She said many of those federal acres will never be leased or developed without consumer demand. She said there are already more than 9,000 drilling permits on federal lands that are not being used, some 12 million onshore acres.

Another “win” for fossil fuels is to increase the carbon emissions credit for Carbon Capture and Storage. This is a technology trying to keep alive a coal industry that is already dying from market pressure. The idea of carbon capture is to convert carbon dioxide to a solid and store it underground.

The Navajo Nation-owned Navajo Transitional Energy Company – the nation’s third largest coal producer – hopes to take advantage of this strategy – investing in Enchant Energy, a company that has proposed operating the San Juan Generating Station in New Mexico.

But here is the problem: Even with the tax credits this technology is extraordinarily expensive, a plant will have to rely on federal subsidies more than potential electricity sales.

Utilities are buying less energy from coal for two reasons: More have mandates to purchase power from green sources and coal costs more than alternative sources. Last year solar made up 12 percent of the national energy market, compared to coal’s 11 percent. A decade ago coal was at 22 percent and all renewables were less than 2 percent.

The problem is the customer-base is shrinking fast. As a recent report from the The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis put it: Enchant “still would have to find a substantial number of new customers for the expensive power” from the San Juan station.

The report notes this is “extremely unlikely in light of the growing competition that fossil-fired generators in the Southwest face from lower-cost renewable resources and the adverse impact aging can be expected to have on the units’ operating costs and performance.”

In addition, supporters of the coal industry say that the Inflation Reduction Act has language in it that reverses West Virginia versus the Environmental Protect Agency. The law specifically appropriates funding for the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, an idea the Supreme Court struck down without specific language from Congress.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said this will be the death of the coal industry. He proposed an amendment to the legislation, which was defeated, to prevent the bill from “eroding the effect of the Supreme Court’s recent landmark decision in West Virginia v. EPA, which limited big government overreach by the EPA.”

Another provision that impacts fossil fuels is a tax on methane emissions. This is a major contributor to global warming. (There is also a reward for companies that do reduce their methane emissions.)

There are two other provisions that could have a significant impact on Indigenous communities. First, a tax credit for projects that retire coal infrastructure in census tracts that have high unemployment. And, a 20 percent tax credit for small wind and solar projects in low-income communities. This could be huge in places like Page, Arizona, or Colstrip, Montana.

And that’s where the Inflation Reduction Act has the potential to increase the velocity of a trend that is already happening, the growth in low-cost renewable energy.

“Total installed renewable capacity in the western U.S. electricity grid has increased some 14-fold since 2007,” the Institute’s analysis found. “The growth of installed solar capacity has been even more dramatic, climbing from barely any in 2011 to 41,000 megawatts just 10 years later.”

There are already significant clean energy projects being built by tribes, individual entrepreneurs, and public benefit organizations, such as Navajo Power Company.

The bill is designed to motivate consumers. It offers incentives for people to buy new electric vehicles or to make their house more efficient or for tribes to upgrade their administrative buildings with new cleaner power sources.

In addition there are millions of dollars to fund tribes or to provide loan guarantees for tribal energy initiatives. There are energy credits for solar and wind facilities that serve low income communities. Others are designed to transition to clean energy vehicles. And billions to invest in climate resilience (a fund that includes tribes as well as other at-risk communities.)

There is a lot on the table with this voluminous bill. As Jade Begay, climate justice director at NDNCollective and a member of the White House’s Environmental Justice Advisory Council wrote on Twitter: “I’m less interested in debating the good bad & the ugly. I’m more interested in how we organize forward: what mechanisms we leverage to fight oil&gas, what coalitions we strengthen, all while providing assistance to our ppl so they can access the historic investments in the #IRA.”

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