Mark Trahant

Family Math Doesn’t Work When it Costs $100 to Fill-up a Pickup Truck

A few weeks ago Bloomberg News reported that Saudi Arabia is investing $100 billion in renewable energy sources (“Saudi Arabia to Target Solar Power in $100 Billion Energy Plan”). In other words the country with the largest known reserves of oil is spending its profits building power plants fueled by nuclear energy, wind, geothermal and solar power.

What does Saudi Arabia know that the rest of us don’t? Simply this: It’s far better to save every drop of oil for export (especially with prices exceeding $110 per barrel) and build a less expensive alternative at home. Why not? Saudi Arabia, like any desert nation, is an ideal spot for solar production.

The high cost of that oil impacts Indian country in a number of ways.

Native American consumers are hit especially hard because so many reservations and Alaska villages are geographically isolated. Gas is always expensive—and when it creeps up across the country—well, the cost goes beyond reach. One Minnesota study (“The Per-mile Costs of Operating Automobiles and Trucks,” PDF) reports that even in good times (when gas is pegged $1.50 a gallon) it costs nearly 44 cents per mile to operate a pickup truck. “Extremely rough roads” (what we would call “rez roads”) increase that price by another 5.5 cents per mile. And all those numbers total before $4 a gallon. Or worse, $5 or $6 a gallon.

The family math is daunting. When it costs $50, $100 or $150 to fill up a tank … then there is not enough money for everything else including food and other must-buy purchases. (Indeed: If four in ten Americans say the price of fuel is causing a serious economic hardship, what is that number in Indian Country?) The economic impact of soaring fuel will affect everything from the price of hay to the cost of working away from home.

“Now, whenever gas prices shoot up, like clockwork, you see politicians racing to the cameras, waving three-point plans for two dollar gas,” President Obama said over the weekend (Weekly Address: “Instead of Subsidizing Yesterday’s Energy Sources, We Need to Invest in Tomorrow’s”). “You see people trying to grab headlines or score a few points. The truth is, there’s no silver bullet that can bring down gas prices right away.”

The president said: “Instead of subsidizing yesterday’s energy sources, we need to invest in tomorrow’s. We need to invest in clean, renewable energy. In the long term, that’s the answer. That’s the key to helping families at the pump and reducing our dependence on foreign oil.”

Indian Country reflects this complexity. While Native Americans are impacted by prices … tribes are also energy producers (see Tribal Energy and Environmental Information Clearinghouse) from oil and gas to alternatives such as wind and geothermal. Over the long haul tribes have much to gain from alternative investments and a variety of projects across the country are doing just that (see “Wind: Environmental Reports and Case Studies”).

Early next month tribal leaders will meet with Energy Secretary Stephen Chu (letter from Steven Chu, PDF) in the Washington, D.C., area to discuss “a broad range of energy and environmental issues.” The idea is to include the views of tribal governments in a broader U.S. energy policy.

There are two policy considerations here. First, the long-term policy that every nation—even Saudi Arabia—think in terms of developing energy alternatives. That’s a good thing.

But a short-term policy should be simpler: What will it take for a family’s math to make sense over the next few months?

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. Trahant’s recent book, The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars, is the story of Sen. Henry Jackson and Forrest Gerard.


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Family Math Doesn’t Work When it Costs 0 to Fill-up a Pickup Truck