A couple of years ago a tribal leader showed me an abandoned lumber mill near the village of Tyonek, Alaska. The company promised jobs. And, for a time, for a couple of decades, there were those jobs. But after the resources were consumed, the mill closed, the company disappeared, and the shell of the enterprise remains today.
This is Trahant Reports.
This same story could be told in tribal communities across North America. Sometimes the resource was timber. Other times gas and oil. Or coal.
The lucky communities were left with a small toxic dump site. More often there was major cleanup work required after. But all along, and in each case, the accompanying idea was that jobs would be a part of the deal.
But that deal is no longer true. Now the resource is extracted, pipelines are built, and toxic waste is left behind while the promised jobs are limited to the initial construction jobs.
The extractive economy (like the farm economy a generation ago) reached its peak, probably back in 2014. Oil and gas employed 514,000 people a year. Today it’s 388,000. Coal and extraction related jobs peaked at 90,000 and now that number is about 53,000.
Then Indian Country’s development of coal (or not) has been the story so far in the Trump era.
Last month Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed a memorandum lifting restrictions on federal coal leasing. He said the “war on coal is over.” Then he quoted Crow Tribal Chairman Darrin Old Coyote saying, “there are no jobs like coal jobs.”
A day later the Northern Cheyenne Tribe filed suit. That tribe said the Interior Department did not consult it prior to lifting the restrictions.
Meanwhile in Alaska, another coal project was put to rest in a tribal community. The village of Tyonek has been opposed to the Chuitna Coal Project. After a decade of planning, PacRim Coal suspended the project last month because an investor backed out. The project could still be brought back to life. But that’s not likely. Because coal is a losing bet for any investor.
And what of the jobs? That’s the hard part. The prospects for extraction-related jobs are about to be hit by even more disruptive forces.
So if jobs are no longer part of the equation, does natural resource extraction benefit tribal communities? The answer ought to include a plan where the United States government and tribes work together to replace these jobs: Retrain workers and invest in the energy sector that’s growing, renewable fuels. But that’s not likely to happen in Trump Era. I am Mark Trahant.