When it comes to U.S. federal policy, it’s no secret that Native communities are often forgotten or intentionally left out of the conversation.
For centuries our communities have been killed, disenfranchised and forcefully displaced throughout the country. As the effects of climate change worsen by the day, it is again our people that are being hit the hardest, and once again we are facing the risk of losing our land.
As the seas rise, the soil erodes, the crops wither, the heat rises and the storms worsen, we are running out of options and time. Throughout the country, a disproportionate number of power plants operate near or on tribal lands, often leading to increased health risks and vulnerabilities.
But as energy companies shutter these power plants and coal mines in exchange for cheaper natural gas, our people and our livelihoods are once again forgotten and refused economic support in the transition.
In 2019, after one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the American West shut down, two tribes were each estimated to be at risk of losing millions of dollars in income. I fully support a just transition to renewable energy — my company, Solar Bear, is working to transition Turtle Island in Minnesota to renewable energy — but we must not leave behind the workers that powered our country.
Finally, our voices have been heard. The recently introduced Save Our Future Act — authored by U.S. Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, — aims to drastically reduce the harmful emissions causing climate change and putting our people’s health at risk while simultaneously giving back to our communities.
The law would charge polluters for their emissions and then use that money to invest back into environmental justice communities and assist fossil fuel workers and communities, all while speeding our country’s transition to a just, clean-energy economy.
Tribal communities can also lead the charge on this transition through tribal utility commissions that would work directly with public utility commissions to generate power from renewable energy — both for our own communities and to sell on the grid. Instead of divisive pipelines like Standing Rock and Line 3 using our land, tribal utilities can offer a positive, Native-led path forward. We have a chance to help build the future rather than continuing the methods of the past.
Over the course of 10 years, the Save Our Future Act would provide roughly $255 billion in financial assistance to environmental justice communities, specifically to existing energy affordability, pollution reduction, business development, career training and tribal assistance programs. The bill also dedicates $2.5 billion for grants under the Indian Environmental General Assistance Program and an additional $2.5 billion for grants under the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Tribal Climate Resilience Program.
And unlike many climate bills before it, the Save Our Future Act will not leave behind energy veterans — those who have worked and sacrificed to provide our communities and country with power for so many years. The law would invest an additional $120 billion over 10 years to aid coal communities, and tribal land and counties affected by a mine or coal plant closure would receive replacement of lost revenue for the county or tribal government.
Additionally, the Save Our Future Act would provide over $33 billion in competitive grants to promote distributed energy resources, community solar, energy efficiency, energy resilience, and more in environmental justice communities, which will help tribal utilities in their efforts to become leaders in renewable energy.
These thoughtful, targeted policies would go a long way toward speeding the necessary transition to the clean energy that our rapidly changing climate demands, while also ensuring that Native communities are not left behind and have the resources needed to play a key role in this important transition.
After centuries of mistreatment from the U.S. government, it’s encouraging to see a group of prominent senators (the bill had eight co-sponsors at last count) fighting on behalf of our communities. With the Save Our Future Act, America can finally live up to its promise of protecting its people and finally be a leader in the global fight against climate change — but we must act as soon as possible.
I look forward to hopefully watching President Joe Biden sign the Save Our Future Act into law in the near future. It will be a great day for Native people across this country — and an even better day for the planet we all call home.