- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 8, 2015

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - Opponents of a plan to expand coal production on tribal lands said Wednesday that the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee received a mixed message from Native Americans about whether to mine coal in Indian Country.

A hearing was held Wednesday at the Little Big Horn College Health and Wellness Center in Crow Agency, Montana, chaired by GOP Sen. Steve Daines.

Daines said the debate in Washington about energy development in general, and coal in particular, fails to recognize what it means to real people in places like Crow Agency. Energy development is “a debate about the lives of real people, and the future of sovereign nations looking to be self-sufficient and provide for their own livelihood,” he said.

But Alaina Buffalo Spirit, a member of the Northern Cheyenne, said her reservation is surrounded by big coal mines and the largest coal-fired power plant in the state. She said coal has not brought the prosperity promised by supporters of the coal industry.

“These have only brought us a worsened economy and destruction of our homeland,” she said after the hearing, adding that the committee did not allow public comment from Native Americans who disagree with the notion that coal mining is good for economic development.

“Coal companies are dying right now. If they can’t even make a profit for their shareholders, why would they be able to bring prosperity to the Northern Cheyenne?” Buffalo Spirit said.

Meanwhile, some tribal leaders praised the mining jobs and other benefits provided to their reservations by the coal industry. They complained that the coal economy on Indian reservations is being endangered by tougher Environmental Protection Agency clean air laws.

“The EPA clean-power program is creating problems for Crow Nation,” said Darrin Old Coyote, Crow tribal chairman. “The EPA did not consult with Crow Nation, did not consider the economic impacts on Crow Nation and did not provide a less obtrusive alternative.”

The Billings Gazette reported (http://goo.gl/fL193e ) that a year ago, the EPA rolled out plans to cut carbon pollution from power plants - regulations that left coal-fired power plants in some states scrambling to come up with ways to cut emissions. Old Coyote said the change was bad news for coal miners on the Crow Reservation because there was less demand for coal from other states.

Daines said before and after Wednesday’s hearing that EPA regulations were clearly a problem for Indian coal sales. He also said it was time to make permanent the Indian Coal Production Tax credit, which makes mining Indian coal more lucrative.

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