Plains Justice Mourns Founding Board Member Pat Spears

Update: Read the full Indian Country Today obituary.

With heavy hearts and abiding gratitude for the life of Pat Spears, Plains Justice bids goodbye to one of our most important leaders since our founding in 2006.  His faith in the mission of Plains Justice to support a self-determined sustainable future for the people of the Great Plains never faltered.  His quiet certainty inspired us all.  Pat was a founder and President of the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy (COUP), where he and his colleagues Bob Gough and Bill Schumacher made great strides in advancing the cause of native-owned clean energy infrastructure.  In Pat’s own words from an interview for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Wind Powering America project,

COUP was formed in 1994 to provide a forum for utility issues discussion from regulatory and economic perspectives. The Intertribal COUP Council has representatives from nine Tribes located in a three-state area in the Northern Plains: South Dakota, North Dakota, and Nebraska. The Tribes include the Cheyenne River; Flandreau Santee; Lower Brule; Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara; Omaha; Rosebud; Sisseton; Spirit Lake; and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribes. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Telephone Authority is also a member.

We provide policy analysis and recommendations, as well as workshops on telecommunications, climate change research, Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) hydropower allocations, energy efficiency, energy planning, and renewable energy, with a heavy emphasis on wind energy development.

Pat discusses his work with COUP in a 2008 interview with the REAMP clean energy network.  In another video, Pat discusses the first native-owned utility scale (750 kW) wind turbine, installed in 2003 on the Rosebud Sioux reservation, home of the Sicangu Oyate.  Pat doesn’t mention his large role in bringing the turbine to the reservation, including helping to create the Rosebud Tribal Utility Commission, which owns the turbine and sells its power.  Together with Bob Gough, Pat won the 2007 Award for Courage at the World Clean Energy Awards, for this project.  The story is told in greater detail in a 2007 Earth Island Journal article, and as a chapter in Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots.

In 2009, I was lucky enough to visit Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud reservation, where Pat was leading construction of a straw bale building to house the university’s new bison husbandry program.  As anybody who knew Pat can imagine, he wasn’t standing off to the side with a clipboard.  Out in the heat and wind, hair tied back, sleeves rolled up, he was up to his elbows and knees in the project, with respectful native students imitating his every move.  He wasn’t too busy to step inside frequently to be sure that our meeting with tribal leadership about reforms to the local electric cooperative was going well.

Pat saw the national and global relevance of energy politics in Indian country and didn’t hesitate to engage.  During 2011 protests against the Keystone XL pipeline, Pat spoke out at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on behalf of indigenous North Americans opposed to tar sands extraction.  Flanked by tribal allies, he said:

We stand opposed to this extraction of tar sands oil on our treaty lands, both in Canada and the U.S.  It’s our position that these environmental damages to water, the earth, plant and animal nations and the human health costs are just not worth the profits that will be made by a foreign company…. And while the rest of the world is meeting right now to figure out how to lessen their impact, their carbon footprint, the U.S. and Canada seem to be going backwards.  If this tar sands oil land is fully developed, the climate change impacts are irreversible.  It will literally push us over the carbon cliff.

More tar sands oil is not needed to supply oil here in the United States.  It’s intended to go to refineries in the Gulf and export to other countries.  It’s admitted that this will drive up the cost of oil here in the U.S., by TransCanada themselves.  This’ll drive up the cost of food, transportation and every sector of our economy.  It’ll even mean loss of more jobs, in an already depressed economy.  So the temporary/permanent jobs that are estimated  by TransCanada here in construction and operations are extremely inflated.  This analysis is based on a study by the Global Labor Institute at Cornell University.  So how can the contamination of the earth, water, death of the plant and animal nations and the ruin of human health for profit by a foreign company be in the national interest?

Pat continued by discussing tribal efforts to advance renewable energy and create green jobs, and the long-term positive economic impact of clean energy alternatives.  He could go on at great length without notes on these topics.  His knowledge, both technical and historical, was profound and nuanced, and he had a way of sharing it without lecturing or condescending.

Pat’s diverse background includes service as the Director of the Minority Business Office in the South Dakota Governor’s Office of Economic Development.  He worked as Planning Director and served a term as Tribal Chairman of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe or Kul Wicasa Oyate.

We at Plains Justice wanted to honor Pat’s memory with a few facts about his life.  There is much more to tell.  We are grateful for comments, additions, and corrections to what is posted here.  Mitakuye oyasin.

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On a Break

This blog isn’t being updated right now (we’re making it official).  Please check in for news on the Plains Justice website, the Clean Energy Ambassadors website, or the Great Plains Tar Sands Pipelines blog.

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When They Tell You Coal Is Cheap…

Ask them about Montana’s state subsidies for coal, as summarized in a recent legislative report.  One subsidy explicitly makes strip mining operations economic that would otherwise run in the red.  Your tax dollars at work, making sure global coal companies turn a profit from shipping our natural resources to China.

Property tax exemption: Provides an exemption from property
taxation of one-half the contract sales price of coal sold by a coal
producer who extracts less than 50,000 tons of coal each year. (15-6-
208, MCA)

Reclamation and Development Grants Program Act: Authorizes
the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) to
fund projects that will indemnify the people of Montana against the
effects of coal and other mineral development. The purposes of the
program are to repair and mitigate environmental damage resulting
from the extraction of nonrenewable resources. (Title 90, chapter 2,
part 11, MCA)

Severance tax reduction: The severance tax rate on coal recovered
from a strip mine using auger mining is reduced based on legislation
approved by the 2009 Legislature. The reduced rate applies to coal
recovered from mining operations that would otherwise be
uneconomical to recover by strip-mining methods. (15-35-103, MCA)

Local tax abatement: Approved in 2011, provides that the tax
abatement may be 50% or less for an underground mine taxed at 5%
of the value of coal and provides an initial coal gross proceeds tax of
2.5% on coal produced from a new or existing underground mine for
an initial 10-year period. Allows local government to set the local tax
abatement on other mines at 50% or less. (15-23-703 and 15-23-715,

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New ND Fracking Video

This video by a new North Dakota nonprofit called Bakken Watch (pronounced Bock’n) documents some of the human and animal health impacts of exposure to fracking activities going on in the Bakken oil fields of western North Dakota.  It’s disturbing.

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Opening Statement of Global Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus, UN Global Mercury Treaty

Third Session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC)of the UN Global Mercury Treaty, Nairobi, Kenya, 31 October–4 November 2011

Read by Mr. Earl Hatley, Grand River Keeper/LEAD, a delegate of California Indian Environmental Alliance

Thank you Mr. Chairman, distinguished delegates and the government of Kenya for hosting this meeting

On behalf of the Global Indigenous Peoples Caucus, we respectfully ask that delegates not lose sight of the disproportionate human health impacts of mercury contamination and the dimensions of this as a human rights issue. For example, in the state of Oklahoma, in the US, where I am from, where ten Indigenous Nations are located, along the Grand River, those who eat locally caught fish have high levels of mercury detected in their hair, and the fish have mercury in their flesh.  This is one example of what many of our communities throughout Mother Earth – the world, are experiencing. Mercury is transported to the Arctic by air currents and ocean currents from human activities in lower latitudes. In some regions, coal combustion is the most significant source of mercury, with local emissions and via long-range transport.

Much of this burden disproportionately falls on Indigenous Peoples as the mercury enters the food web and biomagnifies, and therefore contaminates our traditional foods that sustain us nutritionally, culturally, spiritually and socially. Because of our reliance on traditional foods, our communities from the Polar Regions to the Pacific Islands and throughout the Americas and the Global South are at a higher health risk and our future well-being is endangered.

Mr. Chairman, another concern that needs more emphasis in the treaty is large-scale mining and legacy mining sites of abandoned and orphaned mines. Many of these mining activities are within indigenous territories with documentation of mercury poisoning affecting the lives of our children, women and families.

The UN has recognized a number of rights affected by mercury contamination, including the right to health, subsistence and cultural practices. We stress the importance of recognizing and applying international human rights instruments, standards and obligations in these negotiations such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 24, which recognizes the rights of children and takes into consideration the risk of environmental pollution.

Mr. Chair, this is a life and death issue to our indigenous Peoples that maintain a land, water, and ice-based culture. We appreciate short-term approaches as preliminary actions, but the only true long-term solution is to rigorously reduce mercury contamination in the environment and in the species that sustain us. Although Indigenous Peoples are particularly impacted, we share with you the recognition that this is a global threat which affects not only the future generations of Indigenous Peoples, but all people and all Life. 

 – Wado, Thank you.

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Coal Bed Methane Conflict Gets Nasty in Australia

This story is about as far from the U.S. plains states as you can get, but it’s a tale all too familiar to American farmers and ranchers living over coal bed methane reserves.  In the prime farmland of New South Wales, Australia, damage to land and water by miners of what the Aussies call “coal seam gas” has led to fighting words by a motley coalition of “conservatives … lefties … and environmentalists,” the Sydney Morning Herald reports.  Retired New South Wales Supreme Court Justice Robert Hunter, who left the court in 2002 and farms in the area, told a local Food Security Forum attended by 400 people that the Australian federal government should:

establish an Office of Food Security and said local farmers were right to oppose miners harming their land and irrevocably damaging water supplies.

”It’s a just cause that stands between the greed of the mining corporations and their feeding off the proceeds of unjust laws … Unjust laws that don’t recognise the national importance of food security. It’s the destruction of ancient land rights without any semblance of any form of just compensation.

”It’s a form of legalised theft,” he said.

The meeting was chaired by popular Sydney talk radio host Alan Jones, no stranger to controversy himself, and featured other speakers whose remarks reportedly included accusations of government corruption in favor of mining interests and declarations that:

the widespread incursion of miners into rural food-producing areas was the most extreme radical experiment in social engineering ever seen in Australia and would result in suicides and acts of terrorism against coal seam gas installations.

The extreme energy pot is on the boil.

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Energy Subsidies

Interesting post over on Ken Ward’s Coal Tattoo blog about relative subsidies for coal and other forms of energy produced in the U.S.  He writes (as are others) about DBL (Double Bottom Line) Investors’ recent report titled: “What Would Jefferson Do? The Historical Role of Federal Subsidies in Shaping America’s Energy Future.”  The nutshell?  The federal government has always pushed shifts to new forms of energy with big (read really big) subsidies, and renewables aren’t getting nearly the push that coal, oil and gas, and nuclear got in their day.  Also, this idea that renewables are uneconomic is a strawman.  New forms of energy are always expensive relative to existing power sources until they scale up to become the new standard.  Hence the need for subsidies.  You think building a wind farm is expensive?  Try building a nuke plant.

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