Northern Cheyenne Challenge Trump Over Coal Mining
Jace Killsback, President of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, and Jenny Harbine of Earth Justice talk about the impact the lifting of the coal mining moratorium will have on communities and on climate change
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries in Baltimore.
On March 28th, President Trump issued an executive order directing the Department of Interior to resume leasing public lands the coal industry, overturning a coal-leasing moratorium put in place by President Obama. One day later the Department of Interior followed through on President Trump’s directive.
The coal-leasing program determines how 570 million publicly owned acres are leased to coal companies for exploration and mining. It has not been significantly updated since 1979. More than one-tenth of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions; the pollution that drives climate change come from coal mined in federal land.
A justice recently … a law suit challenging the result of the executive order on behalf of regional and national groups which includes Northern Cheyenne of Montana to reinstate the ban on leasing of public lands for coal mining put in place by the Obama administration.
Joining us now to discuss this important legal case are two guests. First, we have President Jace Killsback, who is the president and spokesperson for the Northern Cheyenne.
And we have Jenny Harbine who is the Staff Attorney for Justices Northern Rookies Office in Bozeman, Montana.
I thank you both for joining us today.
JENNY HARBINE: Thank you.
JACE KILLSBACK: Thank you.
SHARMINI PERIES: President Killsback, lifting the coal-mining moratorium on federal lands, what affect is it going to have on your community?
JACE KILLSBACK: Well, we think that there are a number of impacts that would affect our tribal way of life, our homeland, our community. There’s of course, the environmental impact that we have some of the highest air quality standards and water quality standards in the region and we have a class one air quality standards for treatment as a state for our nation.
We have a robust air quality long-term program and we also have a strong water quality program that monitors our waterways. The economic impact is something that we’ve experienced in the past with other coal mining operations around our reservation that we fail to see any real benefit in jobs, in job training. And then there’s a health impact, the public health.
The pollution, the impact it would have in our communities and their health. And then we also have what we consider one of the more important is our cultural impact, impact on our cultural resources, our sacred sites, our animals, our plants, those aspects that haven’t been addressed in the lifting of the moratorium.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And Jenny, let me go to you. In terms of this moratorium, it was achieved through a real fight back and litigation and so forth. Give us a sense of the history of how that moratorium came about by President Obama’s administration.
JENNY HARBINE: Sure. So, advocates for many years have argued for meaningful changes to the federal coal program and an environmental study of all the impacts and alternatives to evaluate those needed reforms. And the coal moratorium and the programmatic environmental impact statement process that was initiated by the Obama administration was a long time in coming.
But I think, the Obama administration finally understood two key facts: That, first, I think it just became too hard to ignore the overwhelming body of science that demonstrates that it’s impossible to continually saying our federal lands for coal mining and the burning of that coal, while making good on our international commitments and really the imperative we have to produce our greenhouse gas emissions to address climate change.
And the second reality that I think led to this development is the growing recognition that we don’t need to mine and burn more coal to fuel our nation’s energy needs. Renewable sources of energy are cheaper than ever. They’re growing market share by leaps and bounds. And I think the Obama administration finally realized that we don’t need to take on all of the really devastating impacts of mining and burning coal when there are better alternatives.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And, President Killsback, let me come back to you. Give us a greater sense of what some of the community health issues are. The impact that this kind of mining has on your specific community that you mentioned earlier.
JACE KILLSBACK: So, I think the most, I guess, relevant scenario that we’ve all experienced with Indian tribes fighting for the environment was what was going on in Standing Rock. That was essentially protecting the water, while we’re over here, in our region wanting to protect the air and air the quality.
And those environmental health impacts would affect our community in a way that we’re monitoring now with our air-monitoring program. We’re looking at the levels of dust in the air, we’re looking at the pollution, we’re looking at all the impacts that a strip mine or a coal-leasing program would have around our reservation.
SHARMINI PERIES: And Jenny I’ll come back to you about the most recently filed court case. But President Killsback can you elaborate a little bit on this, the Interior Secretary has said that lifting the ban is a boon for the Crow people, and that a war on coal is a war on Crow people. Who are the Crow people? I understand it is an adjacent tribe to you. But what did he mean by that statement and are the two groups in conflict over this ban?
JACE KILLSBACK: So, media and even the government tend to marginalize tribes and get us to essentially fight amongst ourselves. It’s a divide and conquer tactic that we’ve dealt with for centuries. And right now, we have a strong cultural worldview that tells us to keep our land pristine, our air and water clean and that’s the way the creator made the Cheyenne.
So, our worldview, our ceremonies, our language connect us to the land as stewards of the land and it may be a different worldview that the Crow Nation has in regards to how to they choose to develop their resource. We have no issue with that. If the Crow choose to develop coal, which they have been, even under Obama administration, they can continue that. We’re concerned about our land, our homeland, our environment and our cultural view on that. We don’t want to be pitted against each other because we’re not against Indian tribes developing their natural resources on their own lands.
We believe, we strongly believe that the moratorium allowed for a re-evaluation and a reveal of the current standards on how that program is carried out. There are specific acts, the NEPA, National Environmental Protection Act, and the National Historic Preservation Act that come into play for tribes in protecting cultural resources, sacred sites of areas of significant value, cultural value and we think that this process would even benefit the Crow Tribe who choose, again, coal development.
We’re not at conflict. We have, of course, a different worldview that’s why we’re different tribes. There’s over 565 Nations in the United States and they all have different origin stories, different languages and different views and ours happens to be one of the land. It’s a very strong bond we have and it’s through, not only our creation story, but our practices, our life ways. So that is why we have chosen not to develop our resource.
That’s why we keep it in the ground and we’ve done this for decades. Legally we’ve done it and as a tribal government we’ve done it.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now, President Killsback, the Northern Cheyenne people sent a letter to Ryan Zinke. Tell us about the letter, what’s contained in it and what are you challenging him on?
CHASE KILLSBACK: Well, the letter wasn’t a challenge. The letter was a request for consultation. We know that previous administrations, including the Obama administration, have issued out executive orders requiring meaningful consultation with tribes. In that case, we reached out to Zinke, who’s a Montanan, who we’ve also supported and are glad to see in the position of the Secretary of the Interior, because he wears two hats.
One in dealing with, of course the coal leasing program, but the other hat, of working and being the trustee of federally recognized tribes. We reached out to him in the spirit of government to government to ask that he listen to our voice on the negative impacts that the moratorium lifting would do.
And we also asked that he sit down with the Northern Cheyenne Nation and discuss with us the possibility of positive outcomes that may come of that … if there are any. And we still have a very strong viewpoint that culturally the burning and … of coal is something that our nation won’t do. But if that is occurring in and around the area we co-inhabit with neighbors, our reservation needs to, again, have a voice in how that’s being done.
There’s issues of job equity, job training, economic benefits that we’ve never seen from coal development around our reservation.
But on the stronger note, again, we understand, just like was mentioned from Earth Justice, the science behind this. This is an outdated industry and that we, for decades have essentially opposed development on our reservation and have asked for partnerships or at least consultations with neighboring communities who have coal development as their economy and as a source of energy.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now Jenny, I understand that Earth Justice has not filed another case at this time, against the Trump administration to re-impose the moratorium. Give us a sense of those kinds of legal battles that are underway and how you intend to go about them.
JENNY HARBINE: So, the conservation groups partnered with the Northern Cheyenne tried to challenge President Trump’s lifting of the moratorium. Which, as we document in our lawsuit, is really an attempt to short-circuit the process that the Obama administration had commenced to evaluate all of these impacts that President Killsback is talking about.
Now Trump’s decision, as we documented, flies in the face of climate science, it flies in the face of really the economic realities and it contradicts a body of evidence about really the unacceptable and very significant impacts that the mining and burning coal have on our air quality, on our water quality and on American communities.
And the Trump administration, just like any other federal decision-maker is legally required to base its decision-making on the facts and grounded in the law and here the Trump administration didn’t do so when it renewed federal coal leasing without the legally required environmental review. And that’s the basis of our lawsuit.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And in addition, Jenny, and this could be a question to both of you because I’m sure you’re conducting the struggles at different ends. This particular lifting of the ban and the kind of the opening up of the leases and the environmental damage is causing, of course contradicts both official government treaties or trust agreements with native Americans, as well as UN declarations on Indigenous Peoples, of which the U.S. is a signatory.
Give us a better sense of the number of things that the U.S. is violating at this point, both on the part with native communities as well as in terms of legislation and treaties already in place.
JENNY HARBINE: I will defer to President Killsback on the questions regarding treaties and native rights. What we’re really looking at in this lawsuit is the violation of just fundamental principles and requirements for rational decision-making and considered review of decisions that the federal government undertakes that affects us all.
And that type of decision is the same type of decision, that other law organizations have been hauling Trump into court for over the last several months. This decision, just like many others that we’ve seen is one that really can’t be justified on the basis of the information that the Trump administration had before him.
SHARMINI PERIES: And final word to you President Killsback, give us a sense of the kind of violations that President Trump is already engaging in when it comes to treaty agreements and violations of declarations in place.
JACE KILLSBACK: So, our ancestors essentially fought and died for the land that we now call home. And by not allowing us consultation we’re not affirming our rights to be heard with the due process that is required with statutes under NEPA and the National Historic Preservation, Clean Air, Clean Water Acts and then our own standards and our air quality and our water quality.
But on a more indigenous perspective, without consultation, the U.S. essentially has no oversight of these projects. And we are filling that burden as first Montanans here. We are filling the negative impacts that would occur when the coal program kicks back and there’s no longer the moratorium that would essentially put a checks and balances for that system. ‘Cause when something goes wrong or bad, it’s the Indian people who suffer. You can ask any Indian about that relationship.
And we’re looking in the spirit of government to government that consultation occur and because it hasn’t occurred we filed that lawsuit because that’s where we stand as a nation within the United States asking for that.
SHARMINI PERIES: President Killsback I thank you so much for joining us. Jenny Harbine, from Earth Justice, I thank you for joining us today as well. I want you to be able to use The Real News as a forum to publicize some of the issues and struggles you guys are working on. And please, I welcome you both back on The Real News whenever you need it as a venue to broadcast the work you’re doing.
Thank you so much.
JENNY HARBINE: Thank you.
CHASE KILLSBACK: Thank you.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.