Native Americans Oppose Coal Terminals

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by Nick Pelosi

Native American tribes have joined environmentalists and progressive politicians to voice their opposition to the proposed construction of coal export terminals along the coast of Oregon and Washington, according to an article published by Kirk Johnson in the New York Times.  The tribes allege that the terminals, constructed for the purpose of shipping coal to Asia, pose environmental risks to their natural resources and sacred sites, and will affect road traffic and economic life on their reservations.  In September 2012, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, a regional congress representing 57 tribes, passed a resolution requesting a collective environmental impact assessment for all the terminals, rather than individual assessments for each project.  To show that their support for the terminals could not be purchased, Lummi tribal leaders recently burned a mock million-dollar check.

According to Johnson, the involvement of Native Americans cultural claims and treaty rights will have key implications for the debate.  Tribal communities in the Pacific Northwest have historically exercised greater influence over their natural resources than tribes in other regions of the country, particularly with regards to their fishing rights.  In 1974, the US Supreme Court reaffirmed the right of tribal communities in Washington to co-manage salmon alongside the state, citing treaty obligations from the nineteenth century.  In 2012, Native American fishing rights were a driving force behind the removal of a dam in the Elwha River near Olympic National Park in Washington, one of the largest dam removal projects in the country’s history.

Jason Hayes, a spokesperson for the American Coal Council, claims that the terminals are crucial for the American economy.  The domestic demand for coal dropped 16.3 percent in the United States this year, as consumers switched to natural gas and other cheaper (though not necessarily cleaner) forms of energy.  Yet coal exports increased in almost every region of the country, and the demand for coal remains high in Asia.  Hayes argues that, in order to compete for Asian markets against other coal-producing nations, such as Indonesia and Australia, the United States must strengthen its coal exporting infrastructure along the west coast.

Despite these arguments, and the millions of dollars given to political campaigns by the coal industry in the 2012 elections, Native American rights to protect their natural resources are legally enshrined in federal treaties, and their opposition to the terminals will have to be considered in the development process.

Caption: Native American tribes have joined environmentalists and progressive politicians to voice their opposition to the proposed construction of coal export terminals along the coast of Oregon and Washington (source: New York Times)

Will Native American support be enough to stop the construction of coal export terminals along the coast? Let us know in the comments section.