Biden’s green energy push collides with key Democrat constituency: Native American tribes

Biden’s promises to respect sovereignty take backseat to energy policy, tribal leaders say.

Published: January 17, 2024 11:00pm

Updated: January 18, 2024 10:17am

While President Joe Biden has made respect for tribal sovereignty a pillar of his administration, some Native Americans are saying that respect ends where Biden’s energy policy begins. The dynamic has created some tension between a Democrat president and one of his party's key constituencies.

“It seems like they elevate the voices and are willing to consult with indigenous groups when the voice is supportive of their policy,” Nagruk Harcharek, president of the Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, told Just The News.

In August, Biden designated the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni—Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument, which blocked off millions of acres of public lands to most uses outside outdoor recreation.

“As president, I promised to prioritize Tribal sovereignty and self-determination. I'll continue to work alongside Tribal leaders to keep that promise,” Biden said during a designation event. It was a different story a couple months prior when the Biden administration charged forward with a ban on fossil fuel and mineral leasing in a 10-mile buffer zone around the Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwest New Mexico.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary, announced she’d be withdrawing 336,400 acres in the buffer zone from oil and gas development. The Navajo Nation government had been voicing opposition to the moratorium since the BLM proposed it two years before, and a few weeks before Halaand’s announcement, the tribe’s lawmakers passed legislation opposing the move.

“The Secretary’s action undermines our sovereignty and self-determination,” Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren said in a statement when the tribe’s concerns were apparently ignored. Nygren said the decision jeopardizes the tribe’s future economic opportunities and puts 5,600 Navajo owners of land allotments in “dire financial constraints.”

“The Biden administration claims to prioritize tribal consultation, but they consistently ignore groups in Alaska and elsewhere who don’t preach their big-government, ‘there is a climate crisis’ message,” Rick Whitbeck, Alaska state director for Power The Future, told Just The News.

Native Americans have been a solid voting bloc for Democrats as well as a healthy source of political donations

Responsible development

It’s a familiar story for the 24 members of the Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, which serves eight communities in Alaska’s North Slope Borough, an area of 95,000 square miles of northern Alaska.

In September, the Biden administration announced it would prohibit drilling in 13 million acres of the National Petroleum Reserve and cancel all drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

For the members of the Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, it was a serious blow to revenues their community depend upon. In the 1970s, Harcharek explained, they set up the North Slope Borough, which gave the region taxing authority over infrastructure. Since then, the tax revenues have funded roads, water and sewer projects, and emergency services, including a search and rescue department with their own fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. With the nearest Coast Guard base down in Kodiak, nearly 1,000 miles away, the communities depend on it for rescues.

The revenues also funded the communities’ own wildlife department, which conducts research and manages wildlife in the area. Since many of the indigenous people of the area depend on wild game for their diet, the service is indispensable, Harcharek said.

He added that the oil and gas industry accounts for 95% of the revenues that make all this possible. With the Biden administration stomping on oil and gas development in the region, the communities are losing their support for all that development they’ve enjoyed since the 1970s. “That’s why we fight for responsible resource development,” Harcharek said.

After the restrictions were announced in September, the members of the Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat fought for extensions to the comment periods on the proposed rules, hoping to have time to provide their input. They made regular trips to Washington, D.C. Federal officials, Harcharek said, couldn’t even tell them who they should be talking to.

They met with people at the Alaska office of the BLM, who told them to go talk to the officials in D.C. Once in D.C., they were given the runaround, Harcharek said, from the Department of Interior, the Office of Management and Budget, and the White House. No one would take responsibility for the decision and listen to the members’ concerns.

Contrary to the portrayal that the oil and gas industry is taking from Alaskan Native communities, Harcharek said, the formation of the borough gave them a voice with the companies.

“These [oil and gas] projects are not done to us. They’re done with us, because we put things in place so we had a lot of control over whether or not these things go forward,” Harcharek said.

He said, while the oil companies engage with the members of the Voice, the Biden administration seems largely indifferent to their concerns.

Green promises

It’s not just the Alaskan Natives and the members of the Navajo whose sovereignty is getting brushed aside when it conflicts with Biden’s energy policies. In an op-ed in the Denver Gazette in July, William Perry Pendley, who headed the BLM under Trump, pointed to the Three Affiliated Tribes — Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation — on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in central North Dakota, which sits on top of the productive Bakken Formation. The Southern Ute tribe in Colorado, Wind River Eastern Shoshone, Northern Arapaho tribes in Wyoming, Jicarilla Apache tribe in New Mexico, Ute Indian tribe in Utah, and the Osage Nation in Oklahoma, and the Crow in Montana — all benefit from fossil fuel development.

“There are tribes out there that are blessed with tremendous natural resources including coal, oil and natural gas. And obviously, they want to develop them and take care of their members. The Biden administration is opposed to that and is frustrating their efforts,” Pendley told Just The News.

The story isn’t any different when it comes to Biden’s green energy policies.

Pattern Energy recently began construction on the SunZia Wind and Transmission project, which includes a 3.5 gigawatt wind farm and a 550-mil transmission line. When it comes online, it will generate three times more power than Hoover Dam, according to E&E News, but only when the wind is blowing.

Work on the project was halted last fall when Native American tribes said the federal government was ignoring their concerns about its impact on their religious and cultural sites. Despite the tribes’ objections, the Biden administration plowed ahead with the project.

The wind and solar industry is often held up as the replacement for jobs and economic activity lost as a result of the Biden administration’s war on fossil fuels. Yet, those developments don’t come easy. The Standing Rock Sioux carried out protests against the Dakota Access oil pipeline in 2015 and 2016, which got international attention.

The tribe had hoped to create a stream of jobs with wind energy development funded by the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Inflation Reduction Act. They found it takes a lot of technical expertise they don’t have, and the process is expensive and lengthy.

Harcharek said there’s a lot of talk about renewable energy jobs coming to the Iñupiat to replace any losses from Biden’s oil and gas restrictions, but it’s more of a promise than a plan of action with any details.

“I’ve seen the discussion, but there’s never a follow up to that,” Harcharek said.

The Biden administration gave the Iñupiat some concessions with the approval of the Willow Project. Harcharek said it will provide billions in property tax revenue over its expected 30-year lifespan, on top of $6 billion federal and state royalties and local taxes. This will support, he said, everything from local governments for the villages to community centers to boat ramps that will allow fishermen to get onto the water safely.

Some communities who criticized the project have warmed up to its potential. The tribal and city councils of Nuiquist, a village of 550 people nearest to the Willow development, approved resolutions in December withdrawing earlier criticism of the project, according to Northern Journal.

“It’s a huge dollar amount to communities that might not otherwise have these opportunities. That’s why we are so passionate about our support for responsible development on the North Slope. And if you do it with us, like we have been for over 50 years, it can be done responsibly,” Harcharek said.

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