From gold rushes to oil booms, Native American lands have been subjected to some of the worst environmental abuses in America. Unregulated mineral mining, rapacious fossil fuel extraction and multiple pipelines have dominated land occupied for thousands of years by Indigenous people. The history is dotted with cavalier treatments by corporate energy and mining interests. Many Native Americans have ended up living in some of the most degraded landscapes in the country, their communities severely damaged by factors ranging from the practical — such as polluted water — to cultural: some of the most desecrated tribal lands are sacred in the belief systems of various Native American tribes.
With marginalized status and little political power, tribal communities have historically struggled to protect their lived environment from ecological degradation. And there’s another severely limiting factor in their ability to defend their landscape: poverty. Native Americans have the highest poverty rate among all minority groups at 25.4 percent.
So, for the past 50 years it has been relatively easy for fossil fuel and mining interests to separate Native Americans from their assets and resources with relative impunity. It’s no accident that the movement for Native American rights rose in tandem with the growth of a national environmental awareness in the 1970s. As a general group, Native Americans are among the most affected by the ecological quality of the natural assets on which they live or which they claim as ancestral homelands.
Renewable energy projects were a great fit for native lands because they are environmentally and culturally harmonious.
Now, one of the biggest steps toward rectifying this sorry state of affairs is underway, thanks to the climate-related provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act. Within its unprecedented allocation of $379 billion for investment and subsidies in climate initiatives, there’s a little-remarked upon directive that steers $720 million to climate resilience and energy funding for Native-driven climate solutions and tribal energy development.
The intention is to deal with climate issues as they affect some of the most ecologically challenged land in the U.S. while also advancing some measure of environmental justice. The IRA includes "Tribal-specific funding to address climate-related impacts in Native communities, including investments that support climate resilience and adaptation in Tribal nations and Native communities." This may sound like a tall order but the IRA promises unprecedented funding plus the full weight of the federal government’s administrative apparatus to turn the reparative concept into reality.
The number of possible entities that could benefit is large. As of 2022, there are 574 federally recognized AI/AN tribes, a number of tribes recognized at the individual state level and also many tribes that are not state or federally recognized but would still be eligible. The IRA’s comprehensive menu of targets includes money for tribal climate resilience, including fish hatchery operations and maintenance, development of tribal high-efficiency electric home rebate programs and tribal home electrification and tribal emergency drought relief.
This is an unprecedented commitment by government policy considering that in 1999 a paltry $1.8 million was created for renewable projects on Indian lands. Further, if the execution of this legislation goes well, it could well be just the first phase of a significant effort at correcting decades of environmental damage to Native American land. The IRA also offers billions more through competitive grants, loans, loan guarantees and contracts for which tribes and Native Americans are eligible to apply.
Native lands need electricity investments
Almost $375 billion of the funding for climate projects on native lands is going towards electrification and for good reason. The energy issues on federally recognized Native reservations have been well known for some time. In 2000, then-secretary of energy Bill Richardson launched the Department’s Indian Initiative and commissioned a study on energy consumption and renewable energy development potential on Indian lands. Dismayingly, it found that "Indian households on reservations are disproportionately without electricity." The analysis determined that 14.2 percent of Indian households on reservations had no access at all to electricity, as compared to only 1.4 percent of all U.S. households. Also highlighted was the statistic that the Indian lands with the greatest need for electrification were in Arizona despite "the fact that there is an indigenous supply of coal and a large power generation station with major transmission lines on this reservation."
On the upside, the report emphasized that renewable energy projects were a great fit for native lands because they are environmentally and culturally harmonious. Outlined were many opportunities for biomass, wind, geothermal and solar energy to provide electrification to the underserved areas.
Over 20 years later, Richardson’s report could still serve as a cogent plan to provide access to electricity to native lands while achieving the IRA’s twin goals of cutting carbon emissions and developing renewable technology. There is also the added bonus of delivering environmental justice to a mistreated population — a crucial element that historically was missing from government climate investments. We can hope that the IRA’s provisions for Native American and tribal remediation and innovation can produce real progress.