Obama, "Green" Energy, and Indian Tribes

Barack Obama, son of an anthropologist, might be expected to respect Indian tribes. Some of his words suggest that he does. He has issued an executive memorandum committing to "regular and meaningful consultation" with tribes, and supported the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which calls on governments to obtain the free, informed, prior consent of indigenous groups before taking actions that affect them.

But behind the rhetoric, the Obama administration runs roughshod over tribal cultural and spiritual values.

Obama's Department of the Interior is expediting industrial-scale wind and solar energy development on public lands. These "green" projects cause environmental damage hardly distinguishable from that perpetrated by the Bush administration's romance with oil, gas, and coal. But perhaps because they are "green," the administration gives short shrift to the National Environmental Policy Act and other laws that require weighing alternatives and environmental impacts.

The locations chosen for many such projects are landscapes that tribes have valued and used for millennia, that remain critical to their cultural identity. They are associated with the tribes' traditional origins and beliefs; they are home to culturally valued plants and animals, places associated with spiritual practices, places where the bones of ancestors are buried. Interior effectively ignores such tribal concerns, while pretending to do the consultation required by law and (supposedly) administration policy.

In cases like the Ocotillo Wind Energy Facility and the Genesis Solar Energy Project, both in Southeastern California (See https://turtletalk.wordpress.com/tag/ocotillo-wind-energy-facility-project/ and http://www.basinandrangewatch.org/Genesis-Updates.html), Interior's "consultation" has worked like this:

1. Interior categorizes tribal interests as having to do with "cultural resources" - by which it means archaeological sites.
2. Before contacting tribes, Interior tells the energy companies to do archaeological surveys.
3. The companies hire archaeologists to do the surveys - and can fire them if they find anything bothersome.
4. Interior puts the results of the surveys in draft environmental documents. With the companies it drafts plans for the solar arrays and wind generators to be sited so as to miss the specific places the archaeologists say are significant.
5. Then Interior invites the tribes to consult.
6. When they meet, Interior presents the archaeological plan and asks the tribes to sign on.
7. When a tribe says "wait a minute, this whole landscape is significant to us; it's not just archaeology," Interior says, in essence, ---"OK, we'll consider whether it's really significant - after we approve the project."
8. Interior then officially determines that the environmental impacts are acceptable in light of the benefits the project purports to offer, and approves the project.

The tribes, for the most part, support clean energy development; indeed some are doing it on their reservations. What they don't support is ill-considered destruction of their cultural environments, without the opportunity to influence what is done. Some argue that alternatives to industrializing the desert should be given priority - like rooftop solar arrays and solar panels over canals (as is being done in India). At the very least they want to be consulted about where the windfarms and solar arrays will be located, rather than having this decided in advance and being "consulted" only about how to miss particular concentrations of artifacts. But tribal objections - lodged with the Secretary of the Interior and the President himself - have gone unanswered.

The Quechan Tribe brought suit against Interior seeking to halt the Ocotillo Wind Energy Project, but in early 2013 the U.S. District Court dismissed the Tribe's request for Summary Judgment, saying that it had to give deference to the agency's determinations. Other tribes, unable to muster the legal firepower to challenge the government, just quietly fume over what's being done to them.

On February 12, 2012, Chairman Anthony Pico of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians wrote to President Obama. After explaining that his tribe did not oppose clean energy but did want to protect its sacred lands, Chairman Pico said:

"We invite you, Mr. President, to visit the proposed project area and to walk the land with us to see for yourself what sacred land looks like, lands that have been left the way the Creator made them and that should not be opened to industrial renewable energy development."

He went on:

"We also respectfully request you direct those charged with implementing your renewable energy development policy to follow the letter and spirit of the law...."

If Chairman Pico ever received a response to his letter it has not been made known. The president never walked the land with the Kumeyaay, and the project proceeded.

Other projects are being planned, and will doubtless be similarly approved. Interior has found a way to satisfy the courts' minimal standards, and clearly doesn't care what it does to the environment and tribal cultural values.

It would be nice to think that Sally Jewell, Obama's new Secretary of the Interior, would be more responsive to tribal cultural concerns, but without support from her boss, the anthropologist's son, the chances don't look very good.