Crow Agency, the administrative headquarters of the Crow or Apsaalooke Nation, lies near the Little Bighorn River and the Battle of the Greasy Grass in south-central Montana. It’s a remote and barren landscape, save for the languishing tribal community.
And coal. Nine billion tons of the stuff lies beneath the tribe’s sprawling 2.2-million-acre reservation.
While tribes in the northwest have come out against rail terminals and networks that would transport coal from inland for export, there is also a tribe at the other end.
The Crow have worked for years developing a coal-to-liquids (CTL) plant on the reservation as a way to further monetize the tribe's coal reserves. They took their coal project plans to the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians (ATNI) for approval, indicating their desire to work with tribes in the Pacific Northwest. ATNI’s 57 Northwest tribal governments from Oregon, Washington, Idaho, northern California, southeast Alaska, and western Montana unanimously passed Resolution No. 13-86.
The General Assembly of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) adopted the Resolution at their 2013 Annual of the National Congress of American Indians in Tulsa, Oklahoma on October 13–18, 2013 “for benefits of furthering tribal self-sufficiency.”
Clean coal-conversion technologies (e.g. coal gasification and liquefaction), including measures to capture CO2 from power plants and other industrial sources before it is emitted into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas, provide the best market for Crow-owned coal in the future.
“Coal development on the Crow Indian Reservation is a very vital part of the self-sufficiency of the Crow Tribe,” said Crow Nation Senator CJ Stewart in a statement.
“The support of ATNI for our Crow Pilot Project shows the world that Northwest tribes not only support tribal economic development, but also that they support coal development,” Stewart stated. “This is a major victory for the Crow Nation, and I am glad we can work together to find solutions to the problems other tribes may be facing.”
But increased coal production on tribal lands is a divisive issue among unaffiliated environmental groups, and so too with tribes opposed to coal exports, railways and/or terminals. But coal-dependent communities like the Crow Nation face their own perils.
The Crow’s 13,000 tribal members have a 40-year reliance on coal, and it has become a veritable lifeline. There simply are no other income opportunities, no promise of meaningful casino proceeds in a state that has legalized gambling.
At a Congressional hearing last July, Crow Chairman Darrin Old Coyote testified that coal revenue funds half of his tribe’s budget and that without it, unemployment would likely skyrocket from 47 percent to 80 percent.
Westmoreland Resources Inc.'s Absaloka mine opened on the reservation in the 1970s, and besides limited government subsidies has provided the Crow their only source of income since. The mine has the capacity to produce 7.5 million tons of coal per year, and with the potential of increasing exports, "we'd be able to sell a lot more coal," Crow Vice President Dana Wilson told Greenwire. Wilson said the mine employs several dozen workers and provides much-needed revenue to the reservation.
Despite that revenue, tribal members struggle socially and economically. Their unemployment rate is 47 percent. There is high homelessness due to inadequate housing. It’s not uncommon for several families to share one small house. They cope with an inadequate health care system. Their strained resources have resulted in myriad social issues for their members, issues that fall back on the tribal administration.
Wilson told Greenwire he empathized with the Lummi Nation and the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, which both officially oppose the railroad terminals that would enable coal exports, in a manner that Greenwire said showed his mutual respect for the needs of different tribes.
"We as a tribe would like to see whatever we can get developed in a responsible way,” Wilson said.
Last June, the Bureau of Indian Affairs approved a lease and exploration agreement between the Crow and Cloud Peak Energy Inc.
“The Tribe’s large coal resources offer significant potential for good-paying jobs and a diversified source of revenue for essential tribal government services,” Chairman Old Coyote said in a press release. Cloud Peak has already paid the Crow several million dollars and agreed to fund scholarships.
The Associated Press reported last June that the deal between Cloud Peak Energy and the Crow Tribe involves more coal that the U.S. consumes annually, and that the company is moving aggressively to increase coal exports to Asia.