Despite previous opposition, NDN Collective now supports Interior’s renewed oil-and-gas leasing program
Politics over principle? Pressure from the Biden administration?
WASHINGTON – Some Native activists are asking why NDN Collective, of all places, has chosen to take a leading Indigenous role in supporting the Biden administration’s new favorable position on oil-and-gas lease sales on federal lands and water.
NDN Collective, which bills itself as an Indigenous-led, grassroots advocacy organization, has in the past tended to take ultra-progressive positions that support the sovereignty-based tenet of landback for Indigenous nations and peoples, while protecting the environment and health of Native citizens.
So NDN Collective’s stance, released on April 15 after U.S. Department of the Interior officials said they would be opening up 144,000 acres of land for oil-and-gas leasing sales, has been especially perplexing to some Natives and environmentalists who support the green energy revolution.
“Today’s action by the Department of Interior is critical in reducing fossil fuel expansion and keeping us on track to achieve climate justice targets in the U.S.,” Jade Begay, director of climate justice at NDN Collective, said in a statement issued the Friday night before Easter – just after the administration made its own announcement on the matter.
Begay went further, calling Interior’s decision a “win” for the environment and Native peoples. “It is clear that the Department of Interior has been paying attention to the need for making decarbonization more accessible to Native and Indigenous homes, communities, and Tribal Nations, and we need that accessibility to extend even further,” she said.
“Today’s announcement is a big win for Western states, where major oil and gas leases had originally been proposed despite this region already dealing with a mega drought, rolling black outs on high heat days, and intensive fires and smoke that make it unsafe to leave our homes,” added Kailea Frederick, an NDN Collective climate justice organizer, in the statement.
NDN Collective’s position was seen in some quarters as being more aligned with those coming from oil and gas producers than those from environmental and legal advocates at places like Earthjustice, which represents several tribal clients, and Oil Change International, the Sunrise Movement, and the Western Environmental Law Center, which has said that "the communities most at risk from new fossil fuel extraction are primarily Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples, people of the global majority, and those on the frontlines of fossil fuel industry expansion.”
Interior’s decision came after President Joe Biden had originally ordered all such oil-and-gas leasing activity stopped soon after his inauguration in January 2021.
But a Louisiana federal judge appointed by former President Donald Trump ruled last June that there was “no rationale” for Biden’s action.
Still, there was no pressing legal case that required Interior to open up the 144,000 acres up for oil-and-gas leasing at this moment in time.
Rather, a Republican push for increased domestic oil, gas and mineral production and the politics surrounding rising gas and energy prices and inflation in a midterm election year are suspected by many as the more logical – as opposed to legal – reasons for the administration’s current reversal.
At the same time, the administration is selling the policy as a good compromise, since it only opens up one-fifth of the amount of lands and water that oil and gas producers had wanted to purchase for their activities. Plus, for the first time since the 1920s, the administration is increasing the fees companies must pay on what they produce – from 12.5% to 18.75%.
Begay appears to be taking a moderate view that the Interior’s move is a good first step, and she could easily make that case. As did Accountable.US, a progressive watchdog group, which commended the administration's royalty rate increase.
But when asked by Indigenous Wire to explain the change in NDN Collective’s previous position against all oil and gas leasing, Begay was more circumspect.
She sent by email a copy of her December testimony before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources in which she made the very case against the kind of administrative action she had just publicly supported.
In that testimony, Begay, a citizen of the Tesuque Pueblo, specifically said the following:
And that is precisely why I am here today, affirming what we all already know to be true — which is that more public land leasing to oil and gas industries means that we will not achieve our climate targets, and instead we will be violating the commitments the U.S. has made to the global community around reducing our emissions as a nation. Leasing lands to oil and gas industries will move us closer towards catastrophic climate change, and cost the U.S. billions of dollars in potential future climate damages.
Further the leasing of public land would not just cause new problems. We are already experiencing the impacts of climate catastrophe and damages, especially in the Western United States, where these land leases are set to take place.
When asked whether her appointment to the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council last year played a role in her moderated view – or if anyone in the administration suggested to her that she should change her view – Begay would not respond.
Spokespersons for Interior have also not responded to the question of whether the administration pressured Begay or anyone at NDN Collective to offer support for a position that simply does not align with the organization’s previous and recent positions against oil-and-gas leasing.
An administration official did tell Indigenous Wire that they are appreciative of support for the “reformed” program and that NDN Collective’s view here proves that there is no one “monolithic” way of achieving environmental progress.
But people like Tara Houska, a lawyer and founder of the Giniw Collective and a citizen of Couchiching First Nation, views these kinds of statements by the administration as backpedaling.
“Biden promised to stop new oil and gas leasing on public lands when he ran for office,” Houska told Indigenous Wire. “Biden just opened public lands the size of Chicago to new oil and gas leasing. He broke his promise and communities of color will bear the brunt of it, as we always have.”
And she can’t help but point to the politics that are obviously at play here.
“Political spin can’t change those facts, just as political compromise isn’t urgently answering an oft-repeated but rarely acted-upon reality: the world is on fire,” Houska said. “Sacrifice zone politicking is the opposite of climate justice – sure, it could be worse, but it could be far better, like President Biden sticking to promises he chose to make instead of deciding to open up more land, harming at-risk communities and engaging in the same old as droughts rage on, already-impaired rivers aquifers are drained by extractive industry, and ecosystems suffer.
“Waving around a court order that could be appealed and tied up in litigation doesn’t deflect his decision to break a promise with a move that won’t lower gas prices but will unquestionably harm those communities, lands, and waters impacted.”
While Houska would personally like tribes and Native groups to be careful when weighing this and all administrations’ climate-related actions, she said she can’t speak to NDN Collective’s apparent 180-degree turn here.
Said Houska: “I can only speak to the thoughts behind my own perspective and the sentiments shared by our grassroots collective of Native land defenders: we must radically repair our relationship with nature and carry our values into practice.”
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