The time has come for the Biden administration to promote environmental justice for coal for the people of Northern Cheyenne. When President Biden was elected and Debra Haaland was named Secretary of the Interior, many had hoped to turn a page about the most damaging environmental decisions from the Trump era, including the decision to reintroduce coal leases on public lands, including the lands surrounding the Northern Cheyenne Reserve. . Insulting our people, the Biden administration has refused to reverse Trump’s coal policy, which puts our communities, waters, land and air at risk. As Tribe Master, I see the effects of this failure every day.
At the core of the Northern Cheyenne worldview is the imperative to respect what our Creator Maheo allows us to deal with. We care about the Earth that provides us. In Northern Cheyenne religion and culture, the land is sacred and people should not open the world. We believe that water is life itself. For centuries, the Northern Cheyenne people have sacrificed their lives and endangered their children and elders to preserve and inhabit the land containing the bones of our loved ones. Our ancestral homelands and our water are sacred to us, and we have never developed or allowed others to develop the coal that underlies the reservation.
Coal mining has harmed our community and others around the world. We are affected by air pollution from mining activities near the reservation and runoff that degrades our water quality. Mining also destroys the habitats of sensitive species such as burrowing owls, prairie dogs, prairie grouse and sage grouse. Mining in our ancestral homeland is also destroying important cultural sites, including those used for Cheyenne ceremonies. We know that coal mining does long-term damage to our environment and Mother Earth, but the current administration has unforgivably allowed it to continue. This unnecessary coal mining puts public health at risk now and in the future.
The Northern Cheyenne Tribe is part of a lawsuit opposing the Biden administration’s ongoing defense of leasing coal on public lands. During the Trump years, Secretary Zinke lifted the Obama-era moratorium that barred companies from future leases of most federal land for coal exploration or extraction. Rather than reinstating the commonsense moratorium and completing an adequate environmental review and meaningful consultation with the Northern Cheyenne and other affected tribes, the Biden administration doubled down on Trump-era policy to continue leasing coal.
Our tribe rejected lucrative economic development and relentlessly sacrificed to protect our lands and maintain our way of life because these places are sacred to us. It is deeply disappointing that the Biden administration has allowed coal leasing to continue, even as it calls for a transition to clean, renewable energy. In 2021, coal consumption in this country increased by 14%. By continuing to support this industry that exploits our land and resources, we are blocking any progress we have made in clean energy.
The Biden administration needs to do its part, as the Northern Cheyenne Tribe are working hard to develop renewable energy on our reservation.
Coal mining and production has not brought economic prosperity for our people, despite the promises made when coal mines and coal-fired power plants were built in the nearby lands. Employment and contract opportunities were rumored to occur with the Rosebud mine to the north and the Decker and Spring Creek mines to the south, but these were never fully realized.
We would like to see management turn its attention to the future of clean energy and coal leasing all the time. Not only does this protect our ancestral lands, our air and our water, it can also open up meaningful employment opportunities for our people. Tribe members can benefit from working on remediation efforts and renewable energy projects. Wind, solar and storage projects can both help our community with business, lead to energy independence and contribute to a cleaner environment.
We don’t need to see the Biden administration continue the devastating legacy of coal mining. It’s best for both the communities around us and the climate to move away from coal. The transition to clean energy is imperative to ensure that workers in our mines – including Northern Cheyenne members who find employment there – get a first chance at new remediation and renewable energy positions.
For too long, we have suffered at the hands of industry exploiting our land. We sacrificed our lives and limbs to defend our right to a clean and healthy environment. All we want is sensible policies that respect the history of our ancestors and honor Mother Earth. President Biden and Secretary Haaland know that it is better to further increase the harmful effects of coal on our people. The time has come to reinstate the coal rental moratorium and conclusively assess these effects.
This article was originally published as: A column by the Billings Gazette. Shared with permission.