Science & Technology



Native American voices are finally factoring into energy projects – a hydropower ruling is a victory for environmental justice on tribal lands

Emily Benton Hite, Saint Louis University and Denielle Perry, Northern Arizona University, The Conversation on

Published in Science & Technology News

Currently there are over 60 pumped storage proposals pending across the U.S. Pumped storage typically requires constructing massive concrete-lined tunnels, powerhouses, pipelines and transmission systems that can damage surrounding lands.

Withdrawing water for hydropower could disrupt rivers and sacred sites that are culturally and spiritually important for many tribes. These projects also threaten water security – a critical issue in arid western states.

Colorado River water is already over-allocated among western states, which hold legal rights to withdraw more water than is in the river. As a result, many pumped storage projects would require groundwater to fill their reservoirs. The proposed Big Canyon project in Arizona, for example, would require up to 19 billion gallons of groundwater, taken from aquifers that support local springs and streams.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is an independent agency that licenses and oversees interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas and oil; natural gas pipelines and terminals; and hydropower projects. Under a 1986 law, the agency is required to consider factors including environmental quality, biodiversity, recreational activities and tribal input in making licensing decisions.

However, the U.S. government has a long record of carrying out projects despite Native opposition. For example, under the Pick-Sloan Plan, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built five dams on the Missouri River in the late 1950s and early 1960s that flooded over 350,000 acres of tribal lands. Tribes were not consulted, and communities were forcibly relocated from their ancestral homelands.

In 2000, President Bill Clinton issued Executive Order 13175, directing federal agencies to engage in “regular and meaningful consultation and collaboration with tribal officials” in developing federal policies that affect tribes. Each agency interprets how to do this.

In his first week in office in 2021, President Joe Biden reaffirmed this responsibility and nominated U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Interior – the first Native American to head the agency that administers the U.S. trust responsibility to Native Americans and Alaska Natives.

Tribes have called FERC’s record of consultation with Native Americans “abysmal.” Recently, however, the agency has started to make its operations more inclusive.

In 2021, it created a new Office of Public Participation, a step its then-chair, Richard Glick, called “long overdue.” And in 2022, the agency released its Equity Action Plan, designed to help underserved groups participate in decisions.


In canceling the projects in February, FERC cited concerns raised by the Navajo Nation, including negative impacts on water, cultural and natural resources and biological diversity. It also stated that “To avoid permit denials, potential applicants should work closely with Tribal stakeholders prior to filing applications to ensure that Tribes are fully informed about proposed projects on their lands and to determine whether they are willing to consider the project development.”

Many more energy projects are proposed or envisioned on or near tribal lands, including a dozen pumped storage hydropower projects on the Colorado Plateau. All 12 are opposed by tribes based on lack of consultation and because tribes are still fighting to secure their own legal access to water in this contested basin under the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

We recently analyzed FERC’s handling of the Big Canyon pumped hydropower storage project, which would be located on Navajo land in Arizona, and concluded that the agency had not adequately consulted with the tribe in its preliminary permitting. In the wake of its February ruling, the agency reopened the public comment period on Big Canyon for an additional 30 days, with a decision likely later in 2024.

The Biden administration has set ambitious targets for halting climate change and accelerating the shift to clean energy while promoting environmental justice. In our view, meeting those goals will require the federal government to more earnestly and consistently live up to its trust responsibilities.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit, independent news organization bringing you facts and trustworthy analysis to help you make sense of our complex world. It was written by: Emily Benton Hite, Saint Louis University and Denielle Perry, Northern Arizona University

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Emily Benton Hite has received funding from the National Science Foundation and the Social Science Research Council. She is affiliated with Save the World's Rivers and the Global River Protection Coalition.

Denielle Perry is affiliated with the Global River Protection Coalition, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Coalition and the IUCN WCPA Freshwater Specialist Group.


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