Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Obama’s Arctic decisions may be the Climate’s turning point

Summer sun warms Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: USFWS

This is the Climate Moment. A possible turning point.

Consider the massive storm that resulted in a state of emergency throughout much of New England with temperatures in the teens, gusty winds, and snow measured by the foot not the inch. We know from the science that climate change will make storms more severe and more common.

It’s also the moment when the Obama administration stepped up to preserve the environment  — as well as protect Alaska Native communities — by limiting future oil and gas development in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and along the Coastal Plain.

A White House blog put it this way: “This far northern region is known as “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins” to Alaska Native communities. The Refuge sustains the most diverse array of wildlife in the entire Arctic — home not only to the Porcupine caribou, but to polar bears, gray wolves, and muskoxen. Bird species from the Coastal Plain migrate to all 50 states of the country — meaning that no matter where you live, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is part of your landscape.”

But pretty much all of official Alaska saw this issue differently. On Capitol Hill, Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski  said the administration has “effectively declared war on Alaska. That’s my view of it.” 

“It’s a one-two-three kick to the gut of Alaska’s economy,” she said, adding that the governor told the Secretary of Interior that Alaska has a budget hole of about $3.5 billion — a problem that will be made worse without more oil production.

And this is an odd time for Alaska. The state budgeted for oil to be selling at more than a hundred dollars a barrel — and now the price is less than half that. This is a state that an oil and gas trade group brags that 92 percent of the state’s revenues come from that single industry.

So Alaska has had a grand old time with its oil money. Instead of a personal income tax, Alaskans receive their version of a tribal per capita every year. In fact Alaska ranks second lowest in the country in overall taxes (Wyoming is first) but that figure is skewed because nearly all of the money comes from corporate taxes. There is no income tax or sales tax.

Perhaps this serious budget shortage might actually force Alaska citizens to contribute to their state and pay taxes the way, oh, 49 other states and the District of Columbia do.

But let’s talk climate. Neither the White House nor the Interior Department cited climate change as their reason for limiting development in Alaska. 

Then again, a new analysis published in Nature in January said that more fossil fuels will have to be left in the ground in order to prevent further damage from climate change. The piece said that known reserves of coal, oil and gas, including the Canadian tar sands, all Arctic oil and gas, cannot be developed and still keep temperatures under current limits. The authors wrote: “Our results suggest that, globally, a third of oil reserves,half of gas reserves and over 80 per cent of current coal reserves should remain unused from 2010 to 2050 in order to meet the target.”

That means no new Arctic oil and gas developments. No more tar sands. And, by extension, no Keystone XL pipeline.

What’s interesting about the research is how specific it is about developing Arctic resources. 

The authors, Christophe McGlade and Paul Ekins from University College in London, estimate “100 billion barrels of oil (including natural gas liquids) and 5 trillion cubic meters of gas in fields within the Arctic Circle that are not being produced as of 2010.” 

That production alone could tip the globe and warm more than is considered safe. “The results indicate to us that all Arctic resources should be classified as unburnable. To conclude, these results demonstrate that a stark transformation in our understanding of fossil fuel availability is necessary. Although there have previously been fears over the scarcity of fossil fuels in a climate-constrained world this is no longer a relevant concern: large portions of the reserve base and an even greater proportion of the resource base should not be produced if the temperature rise is to remain below 2 degrees” above pre-industrial levels.

The president’s action is not final. Congress would have to do that. But this action means the Interior Department can manage the lands as if Congress had acted. (Congress could reverse Interior, but remember in the Senate that means finding 60 votes. That’s not likely to happen.)

Is this the Climate Moment? The turning point? There is a lot of work ahead, but the Obama administration is acting as if the answers are a “yes.”

Mark Trahant holds the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

Monday, January 26, 2015

State of Indian Nations: Unlocking digital tools in Indian Country to build a new economy

National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby giving the State of the Indian Nations from the Newseum in Washington.


It’s time for State of the Unions. President Barack Obama, of course, on Tuesday. Then, a variety of state reports across the country. And, on Thursday, Indian Country’s national version, the State of Indian Nations. National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby spent about an hour talking about some of the challenges facing the more than five hundred tribal governments.

“Today, I bring a simple message from the tribes of the 21st Century: We must tear down barriers to growth, simplify regulations that are limiting opportunities, and acknowledge that tribes have the capability as governments to oversee our own affairs,” Cladoosby said. “Congress and the administration need to find ways to help bring federal agencies out of the 19th Century and into the 21st Century.  We need them to be partners for growth and not barriers to growth.”

President Cladoosby’s talk covered much ground — a lot of material critical to tribal governments, such as rethinking the federal-trust relationship, an invitation for leaders of Congress to visit Indian Country, and for Washington’s NFL franchise to finally, finally, change its name.

I’d like to expand on two themes from the State of the Indian Nations speech — youth and technology.

The most common age in America today is 22 years old. This year, 2015, the Millennial Generation will pass the Baby Boomers as the largest-age group in the country. Indian Country is even younger than the rest of the nation. The American Indian Alaska Native population from birth through age 24 makes up 42 percent of the total Native American population (compared to about a third for country as a whole.)

We are at a moment in history where we really ought to be investing more resources in young people. Yet, instead, as President Obama said in his State of the Union, we’re loading up this generation with student debt — a total that now exceeds a trillion dollars. This is the logic behind the president’s call to make community college free. A proposal that will benefit Indian Country, including tribal colleges and universities.

But this is also about technology. We need a structure to prepare people for jobs that don’t yet exist.

This is what President Cladoosby said: “The last technology census of tribal nations took place before Google, Twitter, or smart phones even existed.  The best data we do have indicates an ongoing digital divide. While 73 percent of Americans have access to broadband, in Indian Country, it’s only 10 percent …

“We need a comprehensive and updated study of our technology needs to advance more common sense initiatives like this one to increase our participation in the Digital Age.”

We do need more information. The Digital Age doesn’t look like it did even ten years ago. Back then “The Facebook” was a new startup — and certainly not much of a presence in Indian Country. Today Facebook is in most homes, on our phones, and a presence linking Native America in ways that television networks never did. On social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Native Americans are creating, telling stories, and building communities. This is just the beginning of this digital age.

It’s not just social media either. It’s a whole of commerce, activity, and potential. 

So what does it mean? Well, once we figure out how to unlock these digital tools we will never again be faced with watching our children leave a community just to get a job. We can create our own jobs. Anywhere. In a village in Alaska, a reservation in Montana, or, yes, in a city. But the choice will be ours.

But for that to happen we need to prepare young people better. They need to have a bundle of tools, ranging from computer science to video production.

Some of this preparation starts with schools. Helping young people get basic skills in math, science and writing. But much of this Digital Age starts with imagination.

The beauty is that we now live in a world where storytelling is a value. And that’s a value that Indian Country already understands and has for thousand of years.

Mark Trahant holds the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Obama's State of the Union -- preview

Indian Country is rarely mentioned during a presidential State of the Union. But the policies that will be proposed, such as increased support for community colleges, are the smart course for this era. On Tuesday the new Republican-controlled Congress will politely clap -- and then do nothing. (White House photo)

Obama’s State of the Union will call for investing in young people. Will Congress listen?


Indian Country is rarely mentioned during a presidential State of the Union. That’s too bad. There is so much a president could do to improve the administration of federal Indian policy. 

The president could urge Congress to fund Treaty Right obligations as automatic. After all, it’s essentially the same kind of spending as interest on the federal debt. (A cost, by the way, that the Congressional Budget Office figures will triple in a decade, reaching some $800 billion.) 

Or insist on multi-year budgets for the Indian health system, making it much easier to plan ahead, be more efficient, and improve health care.

In a perfect world the president would ask Congress to invest in the next generation of American Indians and Alaska Natives. Everyone talks about how important young people are — so why not do something and something substantial?

Funny thing about that last point: That’s exactly what President Barack Obama will propose in his annual message to Congress. 

The United States “dedicated ourselves to cultivating the most educated workforce in the world and we invested in what’s one of the crown jewels of this country, and that's our higher education system.  And dating back to Abraham Lincoln, we invested in land-grant colleges.  We understood that this was a hallmark of America, this investment in education. But eventually, the world caught on and the world caught up,” he said in a Knoxville, Tennessee, speech, a preview of the State of the Union. “And that’s why we have to lead the world in education again.”

In an economy where knowledge and technology fuel the future the president said “the single most important way to get ahead is not just to get a high school education, you’ve got to get some higher education.”

Even though the president’s message was broad, he was also giving an apt description of the 37 tribal colleges and universities. Then again, the president is not new to this issue. He’s already championed increasing opportunity for Native students, most recently signing an executive order affirming that commitment. 

So any boost in funding for community colleges will likely result in more money for tribal colleges too and that’s a smart investment for a lot of reasons.

First consider the big picture, the budget. It’s clear that the US government is on an austerity course. Money for education and other domestic programs has been shrinking not growing (measured by share of the economy). But the entitlement side of the budget —
Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare — is getting more expensive because of the sheer size of the Baby Boom generation. 

The problem is that the country is not investing enough in the next generation; instead it’s saddling young people with student debt, now exceeding some $1.2 trillion (more than any other type of household debt). It’s we Baby Boomers who should be shouting about the stupidity of this policy. Fact is we need young people to be as successful as possible, as quickly as possible, to pay for our retirement. The generation called the Echo Boomers is huge, some 90 million people. (The most common age in America right now is 22 years old.)

This generation will require more education in order to be successful in an information-based economy. The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that 62 percent of all jobs will require at least some college education by 2018. That is an increase from 59 percent in 2007, 56 percent in 1992, and 28 percent in 1973.

So the time is right to increase the investment in education in general — and especially for tribal colleges and universities.

One benefit of that increased investment is is that every dollar spent will also boost the economy on reservations. A recent study found that in one state, North Dakota, the five tribal colleges spend more than $48 million on supplies and payroll and another $94 million indirectly. This is an economic engine — especially because there is so little private sector activity on reservations. 

I have had a chance to visit more than a dozen tribal colleges — and every time I’m impressed by the students and the ideas that are generated from the reservation campuses. These are innovation centers — something sorely needed in Indian Country especially as the federal government shrinks. 

Add it all up and it’s why President Obama’s plan is exactly the right policy.

Yet there remain huge obstacles — especially when it comes to funding. Tribal colleges receive far less than is what’s needed to get the job done (then, what Indian program from health clinics to law enforcement has enough money?)

And Congress isn’t likely to open its checkbook after the State of the Union. That is unless enough people tell members how critical this investment is to the future of the country.

Mark Trahant holds the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet. Trahant will  be live-Tweeting the State of the Union using the hashtag, #NTSOTU 

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Climate change? Treaty rights? Sure, but the real killer is The Market

The new Republican Congress has promised to expedite legislation to promote the Keystone XL Pipeline. North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven is expected to unveil his bill as soon as Jan. 6. The House will quickly follow with a similar proposal.

So do the supporters of the Keystone XL Pipeline have a deal? Or is the pipeline done, dead?

Here are four reasons why the pipeline might never be built.

Four: Politics. The new Congress, the Republicans have always been in favor of this massive construction project. But the Obama administration has been timid. Neither saying outright that they’re opposed nor jumping on the “this creates jobs” bandwagon. That changes when the Republican Congress passes a bill. Any bill. My bet is that the President will veto the legislation. 

And if that happens, there are not enough votes for an override, according to New York Democrat Sen. Chuck Schumer.

Three: Climate change. The fact is that there is no way any politician can justify Keystone and still say it’s time to take stronger action on global warming. As Bill McKibbon’s 350.org puts it: “President Obama says that he will reject the pipeline if it poses a risk to the climate. That makes his decision simple: building a 800,000 barrel-per-day pipeline of the world’s dirtiest oil will mean more tar sands dug up and burned, and more carbon pollution.”

This issue is becoming a scorecard for both parties, Republicans for and Democrats against. As we near an election year, that becomes even more important as groups rate candidates based on their votes.

Two: The opposition remains firm. Tribes, environmental groups, ranchers and other opponents are continuing to press their case in a variety of forums.

As Indian Country Today Media Network reported this week a coalition of tribes continue to press their case against the project that would include Treaty lands. The Yankton Sioux Tribe promised “opposition and victory of unification which will not concede lands to a foreign entity or compromise the climate for generations to come.”

What’s interesting is the technical nature of the challenges. In addition to conventional protests and prayer circles, the opposition is striking out against the permit process saying, among other things, that it’s taken so long that the original permit is no longer relevant. (You got to love that one.)

And the most important reason: The price of oil. In the State Department’s assessment of the Keystone project there is a chapter on market conditions. 

“Over the long term, lower-than-expected oil prices could affect the outlook for oil sands production, and in certain scenarios higher transportation costs resulting from pipeline constraints could exacerbate the impacts of low prices,” the report said. “The primary assumptions required to create conditions under which production growth would slow due to transportation constraints include: that prices persist below current or most projected levels in the long run; and all new and expanded Canadian and cross-border pipeline capacity, beyond just the proposed Project, is not constructed. Above approximately $75 per barrel (West Texas Intermediate [WTI]-equivalent), revenues to oil sands producers are likely to remain above the long-run supply costs of most projects responsible for expected levels of oil sands production growth.”

That was then when even $75 dollar a barrel oil seemed crazy. Yet this week themarket price dropped below $50 per barrel. The problem from the point of view of oil companies is that demand for oil is slowing at the same time there is too much oil for sale. So there is a glut of oil, making a costly project like Keystone XL one that could be easily delayed for years.

Already Canadian oil producers are debating canceling major projects  in the Tar Sands region because the companies no longer have enough capital to pay for them. The National Post reports that Canadian producers are canceling some $60 billion worth of projects and that the oil decline is seen along the lines of “the dark days of 1999.” 

The price of oil is a game changer. Is it a sure thing? Of course not. But the first thing that large oil companies cut during oil price declines is capital projects. It’s much easier to wait until the price climbs again and the math works in the company’s favor.  Republicans are hell bent on constructing this pipeline, except there might not be customers wanting to buy expensive tar sands oil.

Mark Trahant holds the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.