Raw Materials Needed For Energy Have Been Found On Sacred Land Of Native Americans: NPR



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Higher gas prices often inflate demand for new mines to help electrify the US transportation grid. But in the American West right now, several proposed sites like those where copper is found are on land considered sacred to Native Americans. NPR’s Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Traditionally, you might not expect to hear a global mining executive talk about the dangers of the climate crisis. But companies like Rio Tinto Copper know that the energy market is changing rapidly.

VICKY PEACEY: The world is transitioning, and the world wants to transition quickly, right? And the Biden administration has these very ambitious goals for us to be able to fight the climate.

SIEGLER: This is Vicky Peacey at Rio Tinto headquarters in Phoenix. The company has been trying to develop its Resolution Copper mine near here for more than two decades. Lately, copper is in high demand. Consider electric vehicle batteries. And with global supply chain disruptions, they see a window.

PEACEY: Having a domestic source of copper that could help fuel the low-carbon economy in this energy transition, I think, is really important.

SIEGLER: Peacey says the mine would satisfy up to a quarter of the current demand for copper in the United States, and the tribes will benefit. But as opponents point out, the orr would be exported for processing. Large amounts of water would also be needed in one of the hottest places in the world, which is only drying up with climate change.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing) Protect Oak Flat. Protect Flat Oak. Protect Flat Oak.

SIEGLER: Members of the San Carlos Apache tribe marched through the town of Globe, Arizona, near Oak Flat, where the mine is planned. It’s a 45-mile trek that connects their remote reservation to their ancestral land of Oak Flat, an important ceremonial site. Naelyn Pike, 22, fears the war in Ukraine is being used as an excuse to speed up construction of the mine.

NAELYN PIKE: If you’re going to say you’re going to go green, then do things that are green. And by making the largest copper mine in North America, extracting it in the most detrimental way to harm our environment, that tells you it’s not green at all.

SIEGLER: The tribes are at the origin of a legal challenge aimed at ending an exchange of federal lands passed under the Obama administration which finally makes it possible to develop the copper mine. Western Apaches say the US government has broken treaties meant to protect their sacred lands. Wendsler Nosie Sr. is a former president of the San Carlos Tribe who is camping at Oak Flat in protest.

WENDSLER NOSIE SR: Yeah, that’s our ancestral land. I mean, we have aboriginal rights. You know, the government has done nothing to really secure our children and our children’s future.

SIEGLER: Still, just down the canyon in the town of Superior, it looks like the deposit is so big that the mine will eventually be developed anyway. Mayor Mila Besich’s family has been mining here for generations.

MILA BESICH: You know, we are very respectful of our tribal neighbors and their concerns and their consultation. But at the same time, if this mine does not open, it is an enormous damage for the American economy.

SIEGLER: This is one of many fights that have proposed green energy mines from Arizona to Nevada to Idaho where tribes say they are being told once again to step aside for the greater good.

ANGELIQUE EAGLEWOMAN: I’ve always said that the energy sector in the United States has been subsidized using tribal lands.

SIEGLER: Angelique EagleWoman is a professor at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law, where she followed these growing Indigenous protest movements. She says the US government has historically flouted its treaty obligations, but today it may be different.

EAGLEWOMAN: And we think we have the ear of an American president who believes in the dignity of the promises made by the United States to Native Americans.

SIEGLER: President Biden is at an impasse. He promised a transition to cleaner fuels, but also pledged to right the wrongs in Indian country. He recently ordered more tribal consultations on the Arizona land swap. A federal appeals court is expected to rule any day on the tribe’s challenge to the mine. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Phoenix.

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Nohemi M. Moore