Woven Together With the Land: The Role Climate Change Will Play in the Future of Tribal Energy

“Our lands and resources are the basis of our spiritual life. That’s been our way since time began. By preparing for further environmental changes, we can mitigate threats to our way of life. […] Our survival is woven together with the land.”

—Joe Durglo, Chairman, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes

Humanity’s ability to harness the energy encased in fossil fuels has helped usher in an unprecedented era of technological advancement, globalization and connectivity. However, the byproducts of fossil fuel use have accelerated the warming of our planet and altered climates throughout the world in ways unseen since the last Ice Age.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes that the generation of electricity (mostly by burning coal and natural gas) are tied with transportation as the biggest contributor of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the United States. Increased concentrations of GHGs are linked to ocean acidification, sea level rise, rising global temperatures, more frequent flooding and droughts, and more powerful hurricanes.

The Alaska Native village of Shishmaref opted to relocate  their entire community in 2016 due to rising seas and coastal erosion, with community officials expecting their entire island to disappear within the next 35 years. A 2009 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that at least 31 Alaska Native villages were in threat of disappearing from sea level rise and coastal erosion brought on by climate change.

Coastal tribes are not the only groups feeling the effects of climate change. Rising global temperatures are placing added strain on building cooling systems and air conditioners. Those cooling systems are powered by electricity, often electricity generated by burning the same fossil fuels that created their need in the first place.

Considering that many tribes hold vast reserves of fossil fuels and others rely on coal and natural gas for electricity generation, how will ongoing shifts in our climate caused by human activity affect energy markets for tribes? What can tribes change to their own energy usage to help mitigate harmful GHG emissions and adapt?

To prepare for the inevitable effects of climate change, many tribes are adopting action plans to both mitigate the factors contributing to change and adapt to the increasing intensity of harsh weather events. Energy is at the forefront of these policy documents.

Improved energy efficiency is a common thread in many of the plans. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation even built in smarter energy generation and use into their definition of mitigation. Tribes are able to minimize GHGs by conserving energy. For tribes that lack control over how their electricity is generated, boosting efficiency allows for reduced consumption.

The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe discussed requiring new construction to conform with green building standards. Strategies like installing energy efficient windows, sustainable building materials, and smart thermostat controls could all contribute to reduced electricity use and ultimately lower emissions.

Sixty-eight percent of America’s electricity is still generated from fossil fuels, so divesting from the national grid and localizing generation through renewable sources is another important strategy.

The Oglala Lakota are looking to wind energy to help them establish their own sustainable grid. The tribe is also exploring the use of switchgrass to fuel a biomass facility.

The Lummi Tribe has an ambitious plan to adopt alternative transportation and install considerable solar and geothermal generators on tribal lands.

While many tribes are hoping to limit GHGs through divestment, one tribe has actually integrated itself into the larger environment outside the reservation to boost its voice. The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians have been granted the authority by the EPA to implement their own air quality plan. Anytime a local source applies for a government permit to discharge GHGs, that source is required to consult with the tribe. Along with Bois Forte and the Grand Portage Chippewas, Fond du Lac works closely with the state  to administer and amend the state air quality plan.

The Navajo Nation combines energy and water needs, often referred to as the energy-water nexus, in its 200-page climate plan. The reservation houses and is flanked by a considerable amount of coal plants. Further, the tribe expects greater electricity needs in the future, not simply from rising temperatures and A/C use, but also from increased connectivity as more than 16,000 families on the reservation receive power to their homes for the first time.

The tribe recognizes the interconnectivity of energy and water. Water is needed in almost every step of the energy generation process, from fracking the ground to extract the fossil fuels to the vast amounts of water needed to keep generating plants cool. Further, energy is needed to treat water for safe drinking and pump it to homes and businesses.

The problems expected from climate change to the energy-water nexus are daunting. Rising temperatures will require more energy to store and cool food, as well as keep homes comfortable. Heat reduces the efficiency of power plants and necessitates more water to keep them cool and operational. Longer droughts will require deeper wells to reach water, and shrinking water reserves will become more difficult to treat for consumption as pollutants concentrate.

To combat these issues, the Navajo Nation recommends increasing renewable energy production, carbon sequestration, small-scale renewables for remote residents, and stronger transmission infrastructure. The tribe recently announced efforts to add 500 megawatts of solar generation over the next 5-10 years.

Tribes alone will not be able to reverse the already harmful consequences of human-caused climate change. However, by demonstrating resiliency and ingenuity, Indian Country can become a leader in the burgeoning post-carbon energy economy.

As Edwin “Arlen” Washines of the Yakama Nation wrote for his nation’s plan: “For many generations, you will be challenged with a changing climate. But always remember, since time immemorial, we have looked to our elders for their wisdom and guidance, and within our children we will always see hope.”