Across the country, as coal has grown more and more unpopular, Pacific Northwest tribes have proven to be among its most vocal opponents. "Protecting the natural and cultural legacy of Xwe’chi’eXen" (Cherry Point, Washington), the Lummi Nation has actively fought construction of a network of rail and ports near their homeland which would transport coal from mines further inland to consumers in Asia. While tribes and environmentalists have often joined forces to protect sacred ground like Xwe’chi’eXen, in this case there is also a tribe on the other side of the debate.
The Crow Nation's home in south-central Montana, Indian Country explains is, "a remote and barren landscape, save for the languishing tribal community. And coal. Nine billion tons of the stuff lies beneath the tribe’s sprawling 2.2-million-acre reservation."
Crow Nation Vice President Dana WIlson has expressed empathy and respect for the Lummi Nation and the Cowlitz Tribe who both the railroad terminals, but his job is to represent 13,000 Crow tribal members who have a 40-year reliance on coal. To ensure his tribe's right to maximize the earning potential of their reserves is recognized, Wilson has taken the cause to Capitol Hill, adding to what has become a robust debate on the future of coal, both nationally and internationally.
In the United States, the use of coal has made a slow, but steady decline as cleaner energy has emerged. Recently, domestic coal's biggest threat is not technology but the regulatory changes which have been dubbed the War on Coal. As Marketplace has reported, people who mine and burn coal provide 40% of the energy in the US and "have been fighting federal regulation for years. But that fight has taken a new, more serious turn" as "President Obama’s Climate Action Plan threatens to kill off a slew of coal-fired power plants."
Much of the recent debate has been about the globalization of "Obama's War on Coal." In late October, in what the New York Times called "an aggressive move to impose President Obama’s environmental policies overseas," the Treasury Department "largely declared an end to United States support for new coal-fired power plants around the world." By limiting "access to capital for building coal plants," opponents say, "we are essentially condemning hundreds of millions of the world’s poor to endless poverty—if not worse."
Those of us who have worked in developing countries understand the very real tradeoffs of environmental concerns and economic development, but it's important to remember that poverty is not just a problem beyond US borders. Poverty is a fact of life on many reservations. Indian incomes average less than half that of US citizens, and unemployment rates are four times higher.
Exacerbating the poverty problem, explain Terry Anderson and Shawn Regan of Montana's Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), is regulation which "severely restricts Indians' right to control their own land." In their piece at the Wall Street Journal, they say these regulations "lock Native Americans in a poverty trap."
"The voices of the Crow Nation deserve to be heard in this debate," write PERC's Regan and Montana state senator Fred Thomas in a local op-ed. Standing in the way of coal exports denies "the tribe an opportunity to achieve self-sufficiency and help alleviate poverty." As tribal chairman Darrin Old Coyote put it: “The war on coal is a war on our families and our children.”