Some Tribal Economies Depend on Resource Extraction, But These Days that Doesn’t Translate into Jobs

Mark Trahant April 12, 2017

According to the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), Indian lands hold an estimated 30 percent of the nation’s coal reserves west of the Mississippi and 20 percent of known oil and gas reserves in the United States. But, especially in the case of coal, even if fewer environmental regulations revive the industry, automation has significantly decreased the need for jobs.

A cou­ple of years ago a trib­al leader showed me an aban­doned lum­ber mill near the vil­lage of Tyonek, Ala. The com­pa­ny promised jobs and, for a cou­ple of decades, there were jobs. But after the resource was con­sumed, the mill closed, the com­pa­ny dis­ap­peared, and the shell of the enter­prise remains today.

This same sto­ry could be told in trib­al com­mu­ni­ties across North Amer­i­ca. Some­times the resource was tim­ber. Oth­er times gas and oil. Or coal.

The lucky com­mu­ni­ties were left with a small tox­ic dump site. More often there was major cleanup work required after (plus a few more jobs). In the worst case sce­nario, a Super­fund site was left behind requir­ing gov­ern­ment super­vi­sion and an even greater restora­tion effort. But all along, and in each case, the accom­pa­ny­ing idea was that jobs would be a part of the deal. There would be con­struc­tion jobs to build the mine, pipeline or pro­cess­ing plant. Then there would be truck dri­ving jobs mov­ing mate­ri­als, a few exec­u­tive jobs (espe­cial­ly in pub­lic and com­mu­ni­ty rela­tions) and, of course, the even­tu­al super­vi­sion of the cleanup (espe­cial­ly if the trib­al gov­ern­ment had its own envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion agency).

That was the deal. But it’s one that is no longer true. Now the resource is extract­ed, pipelines are built, and tox­ic waste is left behind — and the promised jobs are lim­it­ed to the ini­tial con­struc­tion jobs.

The renewed effort to build the Key­stone XL pipeline is a clas­sic exam­ple of this shift. When Pres­i­dent Don­ald J. Trump signed the exec­u­tive order to approve the project he promised thou­sands of jobs.” That’s true enough for the con­struc­tion phase, but only 35 employ­ees would be need­ed to oper­ate the pipeline, accord­ing to the State Depart­ment report.

Key­stone, at least, is prospec­tive jobs. New ones. But the big­ger chal­lenge for the Nava­jo Nation, the Crow Nation and some 30 tribes with coal reserves or pow­er plants is that new deal for resource-based plants and extrac­tion does not cre­ate as many jobs.

The num­bers are stark.

The U.S. Ener­gy and Employ­ment Out­look 2017 shows that elec­tric­i­ty from coal declined 53 per­cent between 2006 and 2016. Over that same peri­od, elec­tric­i­ty from nat­ur­al gas increased by 33 per­cent and from solar by 5,000 percent.

Coal is still a major source of ener­gy. But it’s in decline. Coal and nat­ur­al gas account for two-thirds of all elec­tric­i­ty gen­er­a­tion in the Unit­ed States. And that’s expect­ed to remain so until at least 2040, when the mar­ket share declines to a lit­tle more than half.

But because the mar­ket’s long-term trend is down, tribes that devel­op coal will not share in the rewards of either major prof­its or in a spike in jobs.

The only hope for this shrink­ing indus­try is to export the coal to oth­er coun­tries (some­thing that will be extreme­ly dif­fi­cult because so many oth­er nations have already agreed to the Paris cli­mate tar­gets). As Clark Williams-Der­ry has report­ed for the Sight­line Institute:

Robust, sus­tain­able Asian coal mar­kets were nev­er a real­is­tic hope for U.S. coal exporters: the trans­porta­tion costs were too high, the com­pe­ti­tion too fierce, and the demand too unsta­ble. So the coal industry’s PR flacks may con­tin­ue to spin tales about end­less rich­es in the Asian coal mar­ket, the finan­cials are telling a much more sober­ing sto­ry: that the coal export pipe dream con­tin­ues to fade away, leav­ing a bad hang­over on the coal industry’s bal­ance sheets and a lin­ger­ing bad taste in the mouths of coal investors and exec­u­tives alike.” 

On top of that, Der­ry-Williams points out that China’s coal con­sump­tion has fall­en for three con­sec­u­tive years. In the inter­na­tion­al con­text, coal is the most pol­lut­ing of the three types of fos­sil fuels. More than 80 per­cent of the world’s known coal reserves need to stay in the ground to meet glob­al warm­ing targets.

There are jobs in the ener­gy field, but, as the Depart­ment of Ener­gy report puts it: Employ­ment in elec­tric pow­er gen­er­a­tion now totals 860,869 … (and) the num­ber of jobs is pro­ject­ed to grow by anoth­er 7 per­cent but the major­i­ty will be in con­struc­tion to build and install new renew­able ener­gy capacity.”

Elec­tric­i­ty gen­er­a­tion in the Unit­ed States over the last 16 years. (Source: U.S. Ener­gy Infor­ma­tion Admin­is­tra­tion)

The green econ­o­my is tak­ing over. (Trump or no Trump.)

The extrac­tive econ­o­my (much like the farm econ­o­my a gen­er­a­tion ago) reached its peak, prob­a­bly back in 2014. Oil and gas employed 514,000 peo­ple. Today it’s 388,000. Coal and extrac­tion relat­ed jobs peaked at 90,000 and now that num­ber is about 53,000.

Indi­an Country’s devel­op­ment of coal (or not) has been the sto­ry so far in the Trump era.

Last month Inte­ri­or Sec­re­tary Ryan Zinke signed a mem­o­ran­dum lift­ing restric­tions on fed­er­al coal leas­ing. He said the war on coal is over.” Then he quot­ed Crow Trib­al Chair­man Dar­rin Old Coy­ote say­ing, there are no jobs like coal jobs.”

U.S. Inte­ri­or Sec­re­tary Ryan Zinke signs an exec­u­tive order on his first day to expand access to pub­lic lands. (Cap­tion / Pho­to: Yel­low­stone Pub­lic Radio / Dept. of Interior)

A day lat­er the North­ern Cheyenne Tribe filed suit. The tribe said the Inte­ri­or Depart­ment did not con­sult it pri­or to lift­ing the restric­tions. It is alarm­ing and unac­cept­able for the Unit­ed States, which has a solemn oblig­a­tion as the North­ern Cheyenne’s trustee, to sign up for many decades of harm­ful coal min­ing near and around our home­land with­out first con­sult­ing with our Nation or eval­u­at­ing the impacts to our Reser­va­tion and our res­i­dents,” North­ern Cheyenne Tribe pres­i­dent L. Jace Kills­back said in a news release. There are 426 mil­lion tons of coal locat­ed near the North­ern Cheyenne and on the Crow Nation.

Mean­while in Alas­ka, anoth­er coal project was put to rest in a trib­al com­mu­ni­ty. The vil­lage of Tyonek has been opposed to the Chuit­na Coal Project. (Pre­vi­ous­ly: Moth­er of the Earth returns to Tyonek.) After a decade of plan­ning, PacRim Coal sus­pend­ed the project last month because an investor backed out. The project could be brought back to life. But that’s not like­ly, because coal is a los­ing bet for any investor.

Accord­ing to Alas­ka Pub­lic Media that meant a joy­ful cel­e­bra­tion in Tyonek. The pres­i­dent of the vil­lage Native Coun­cil, Arthur Stan­i­fer said, What it means for us is our fish will con­tin­ue to be here for future gen­er­a­tions, also our wildlife, like the bears and the moose and the oth­er ani­mals will be secure and they’ll be here. They’ll have a safe place to be.”

And what of the jobs? That’s the hard part. The prospects for extrac­tion-relat­ed jobs are about to be hit by even more dis­rup­tive forces. For exam­ple in the oil fields of North Dako­ta one of the great pay­ing jobs is truck dri­ving — mov­ing mate­r­i­al back and forth. But already in Europe com­pa­nies are exper­i­ment­ing and will soon begin the shift to self-dri­ving vehi­cles. It’s only a mat­ter of time before that trend takes over else­where because it fits the mod­el of effi­cient cap­i­tal­ism. Self-dri­ving trucks don’t need rest breaks, con­sume less fuel and have few­er acci­dents. That same dis­rup­tion of automa­tion is occur­ring across the employ­ment spec­trum. Jobs that can be done by machines, will be.

So if jobs are no longer part of the equa­tion, does nat­ur­al resource extrac­tion ben­e­fit trib­al communities?

The answer ought to include a plan where the Unit­ed States gov­ern­ment and tribes work togeth­er to replace these jobs. Retrain work­ers and invest in the part of the ener­gy sec­tor that’s grow­ing: renew­able fuels. But that’s not like­ly to hap­pen in Trump Era.

(“The New Deal for Tribes: Resouce Extrac­tion & Tox­ic Waste (Minus the Jobs)was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished on the author’s web­site—Tra​hantRe​ports​.com—and some images were added by Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times. Fol­low Mark on Twit­ter @TrahantReports.)

Mark Tra­hant is the Charles R. John­son Endowed Pro­fes­sor of Jour­nal­ism at the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Dako­ta. He is an inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ist and a mem­ber of The Shoshone-Ban­nock Tribes.
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