Democratize Energy Production

by Winona LaDuke 
First published by Indian Country Today, January 2004

The U.S. is the wealthiest and most dominant country in the world, and we can’t keep the lights on in New York City nor can we provide continuous power in a “liberated” Baghdad. Centralized power production based on fossil fuel and nuclear resources has served to centralize political power, to disconnect communities from responsibility and control over energy, and to create a vast wasteful system. We need to recover democracy. And one key element is democratizing power production.

Let’s face it, we are energy junkies. The U.S. is the largest energy market in the world, and we consume one third of the world’s energy resources with 5 percent of the population. We are undeniably addicted – whether to an economy based on burning of fossil fuels and wasteful production systems, or to oil. Ninety-seven percent of the total world oil consumption has been in the past 70 years. We even slather oil-based fertilizers and herbicides on our food crops.

We have allowed our addictions to overtake our common sense and a good portion of our decency. We live in a country with the largest disparity of wealth between rich and poor of any industrialized country in the world. And, we live where economic power is clearly translated into political power. As Lee Raymond, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, remarks, “Energy is the biggest business in the world, there just isn’t any other industry that begins to compare.” Energy companies have immense influence in public policy and often flaunt their violations of the law and of modesty. (Just take a look at the closed-door meetings with Cheney if you need a refresher course).

It’s 14 years after the Exxon Valdez Oil spill, and only two of 28 species almost obliterated by the accident are recovering. That’s about it. ExxonMobil has thus far wiggled out of paying the $5 billion fine levied against the corporation for its negligence, and seeks to reduce the fine to $25 million, or $17.5 million less than Lee Raymond made in 2002. Haliburton, Dick Cheney’s old corporate alma mater is the happy recipient of a $1.7 billion no-bid contract in addition to hundreds of millions in other no-bid contracts to keep Iraqi oil flowing. And, while Enron’s Kenneth Lay, who along with his colleagues was able to loot $2.1 billion from the 401K pension funds of thousands of Enron employees, might get a slap on the wrist, Martha Stewart is skewered. And then there is the Saudi Arabia example – one of our favorite oil suppliers. Although a dozen of the 9/11 hijackers held Saudi passports, we have made few comments, and, instead, invaded two countries with only marginal, at best, relationships with the 9/11 incident. Saudi Arabian officials remain welcome guests at the White House, and any Saudi human rights violations, or (their) absence of democracy, are ignored in our foreign policy.

Alternative energy represents an amazing social and political reconstruction opportunity and one that has the potential for peace, justice, equity and some recovery of our national dignity. The Great Plains is the Saudi Arabia of Wind power, representing this continent’s greatest wind potential. Twenty-three Indian tribes have over 250 gigawatts of wind generating potential; add to that, a host of farmers and ranchers. That represents over half of present U.S. installed electrical capacity. Those tribes live in some of the poorest counties in the country and yet they are putting up wind turbines that could power America – if they had more contracts and access to power lines. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe’s 750-kilowatt wind turbine is the first commercial turbine, with 30 megawatt projects planned for the Northern Cheyenne reservation (Montana), Makah reservation (Washington), and Rosebud in South Dakota. As well, the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes of Fort Peck (Montana) hope to bring a 660-kilowatt turbine on-line. That turbine alone will reduce the tribal electric bill by $134,000 annually, and help establish a senior citizen’s kitchen to feed elders daily and to finance other programs through savings. And this is just a beginning. Solar power has similar potential. Each year, as Dennis Hayes (founder of Earth Day) notes, the sun pours more power onto America’s highways than all fossil fuels used in the world.

Renewable energy makes economic sense. The Apollo Project, representing a host of environmental groups and l2 labor unions, points out that America has lost 2.7 million high paying manufacturing jobs since 2000. Investing in alternative energy is investing in jobs since the fuel supply is from the Creator, there is no middle man. The European Union estimates 2.77 jobs in wind for every megawatt produced, 7.24 jobs/megawatt in solar, and 5.67 jobs/megawatt in geothermal. Or, in short, l,000 megawatts of alternative energy power averages 6,000 jobs, or 60 times more high-paying jobs than in fossil fuels and nuclear power. It is our choice. We can either create jobs and economic stability in Indian country or we can continue to line the pockets of utilities and energy companies.

Conservation and limited applications of alternative energy make huge economic sense. The Starwood Hotel group, (which includes the Sheraton and, for instance, the Gila River Wild Horse Pass Resort), recently invested in energy-smart solutions for 748 properties. The investments saved the corporation $6.l million in one year or the equivalent of 9,400 hotels room bookings. And, these energy savings represented the equivalent of taking l,800 automobiles off our roads, or planting 2,400 trees, or disconnecting 1,200 homes from the electric grid. The Mohegan Sun, the Mohegan Tribe’s casino in Connecticut, is also looking at alternative energy, having purchased two PC25TM fuel cell systems. Each cell produces 200 killowatt-hours of electricity and 900,000 BTUs, which will be used for space heating and hot water. While traditional generating systems create as much as 25 pounds of pollutants to generate l,000 kilowatt-hours of power, the same produced by fuel cells equates to less than one ounce of pollutants.

Right now, we are missing the canoe. While renewable energy is the fastest growing market in the world, the U.S. is dropping way back. The Rosebud Sioux had to import turbine parts from Denmark, and that’s a long way away.

Some of us believe that instead of nuclear waste going to Newe Segobia (at Yucca Mountain), there should be solar panels. And we know that the wind blows endlessly on Pine Ridge, where we believe that, in the poorest county in the country, there should be wind turbines. We must be about democracy and about justice. We must put the power back into the hands of the people.

Winona LaDuke, an Ojibwe from the White Earth reservation, is program director of Honor the Earth, a national Native American environmental justice program. She served as the Green Party vice presidential candidate in the 1996 and 2000 elections. She can be reached at wlhonorearth @ earthlink.net.

© 2004 Indian Country Today