Standing Rock and nation's clean-energy future

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Activists fight the wind near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

By Philip Warburg

As we face the prospect of a climate-denying Trump presidency, the Sioux Nation's triumph at Standing Rock is much more than a tentative local victory.

It remains to be seen whether the Army Corps of Engineers' halt to construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline yields a safer means of pumping 470,000 barrels of crude oil per day through this historically tribal territory. But the bigger gain lies in the foundation the protesters have laid for a sustainable energy movement, embracing indigenous and nonindigenous communities across the United States and beyond.

The transition to a clean-energy economy will not be simple for some Native American communities. Several of the nation's biggest, oldest, and dirtiest coal plants are sited on or adjacent to Indian reservations. The Four Corners Power Plant in New Mexico and the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona are on land leased from the Navajo Nation. New Mexico's largest power plant, the San Juan Generating Station, is at the eastern edge of Navajo territory. Pollution may pour down on their communities, but the Navajo rely heavily on jobs from coal mining and coal power production - desperately needed given unemployment rates several times higher than the U.S. national average.

In a last-ditch effort to keep its coal economy alive, the Navajo Nation in 2013 purchased a massive strip-mining operation that has supplied coal to the Four Corners Generating Station for half a century. When EPA-mandated pollution control requirements caused the Four Corners plant to shut down three older units and retrofit two others, the non-Navajo mine owner, BHP Billiton, anticipated a major drop in demand for its coal and was eager to sell. In the short term at least, Navajo workers will continue to hold most of the 800 jobs at the mine and power plant.

At the same time, some tribes are pioneering a shift toward solar power and other forms of renewable energy. The Moapa Band of Paiute Indians, in southeastern Nevada, fought successfully to shut down the coal-burning Reid-Gardner Generating Station, just outside its reservation and a few hundred yards from the tribe's primary residential community. The last of the plant's four coal-burning units will be decommissioned in 2017. Placing its bets on solar, the tribe is in various stages of developing three utility-scale photovoltaic projects.

The first Moapa solar project, nearing completion, will generate enough electricity for roughly 100,000 Southern California homes, under an agreement with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The project owner's lease payments to the tribe will become the largest single contributor to the Moapa Paiute treasury. Two other solar plants on Moapa Paiute land are in the works, promising to bring hundreds of construction jobs and a further boost to tribal revenues.

The Standing Rock Sioux are also exploring clean-energy prospects on their lands. Together with six other Sioux tribes in the Dakotas, they have formed the Oceti Sakowin Power Authority, whose aim is to tap the wind that already supplies South Dakota with 26 percent of its electricity and North Dakota with 16 percent of its power. Fully built, Sioux wind power would nearly equal the total generating capacity of the Four Corners coal plant when all of its units were still running.

Even the Navajo are taking a serious look at solar power. In 2016, ground was broken on the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority's first solar farm, in Monument Valley, Arizona. Still in early planning is a joint undertaking of the Navajo and Hopi for five solar plants totaling as much as 2.1 gigawatts at the 22,000-acre Paragon-Bisti Solar Ranch in northwestern New Mexico - about equal in installed capacity to the Sioux Nation's ambitious wind power plan.

What will come of this Native American shift toward clean energy under Donald Trump? Permitting for renewable energy projects like the Moapa Paiute solar farms, expedited by the Obama administration, may slow to a crawl. Funding for feasibility studies, which have helped advance projects like the Paragon-Bisti Solar Ranch, may dry up. Tax credits that have made it possible for renewable energy projects to compete with long-subsidized fossil fuel plants may sunset prematurely.

At Standing Rock, we have witnessed the strength of public action informed by a shared dedication to resource stewardship. Those qualities will be demanded of us in spades as we face a Trump administration as bullish on fossil fuels as it is dismissive of the havoc that awaits us in a warming world.

Philip Warburg, former president of the Conservation Law Foundation, is the author of "Harness the Sun" and "Harvest the Wind." @pwarburg

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