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Secretary, Intertribal Council on Utility Policy
Activist, Rosebud, South Dakota
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, tribal land contains about 10 percent of all conventional and renewable energy resources in the United States. Yet, 14 percent of Indian households on reservations currently have no access to electricity—10 times the U.S. average. Renewable energy development on tribal lands can provide much needed electric service to local communities as well as an opportunity to generate revenue by exporting power to major cities.
Bob Gough is scared of letting a plate drop.
Figuratively, that is. He says the fast pace of the renewable energy industry sometimes makes him feel like an Ed Sullivan performer, constantly running back and forth to keep multiple plates spinning in the air.
It’s an apt metaphor for someone juggling the legal, economic, and cultural challenges involved in bringing renewable energy to Native American reservations. As secretary of the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy (COUP), Gough tracks legislation and programs in hydro, geothermal, biomass, and wind power; opens up communication between Tribes, government agencies, nonprofits, and business interests; and walks tribal leaders through the process of setting up facilities on their reservations (among many, many other things).
But Gough is uniquely suited to the job with more than 30 years experience in law and cultural anthropology and ecology. It was his 1976 dissertation on the history of wild rice among the Sokaogon Chippewa that solidified his commitment to environmental issues on Native American reservations.
“I became fascinated with the resilience of American Indian culture,” he said. “Even after centuries of onslaught and removal from the environments that they were accustomed to, they are still able to adapt and find ways to keep their culture and languages in tact.”
But that resilience has become increasingly difficult to maintain in the face of unemployment rates that can range from 65 to 80 percent and economic development on reservations that has historically saddled Tribes with much of the environmental burden and few of the benefits.
“We’re trying to find ways to work with Tribes so that development can happen, so that they can get the advantages of the modern world without desecrating sacred places or losing the natural resource base,” Gough says.
Much of Intertribal COUP’s early work concentrated near the Missouri River, which was dammed in several places during the 1950s and 1960s to produce hydroelectric power for the Northern Plains. Nearby Tribes initially bore the negative effects of damming without having access to the power those dams generated. Intertribal COUP’s work helped rectify the inequity, securing tribal rights to 65 megawatts of power annually.
Now the group has turned its attention to wind power. Tribal lands alone have the wind energy potential to power more than 50 million homes annually. Tapping into that supply could go a long way towards helping the U.S. Department of Energy meet its goal of having wind power make up 20 percent of the national electricity supply by 2030.
To that end, Intertribal COUP worked with South Dakota’s Rosebud Sioux reservation to secure the first loan for a tribal renewable energy project. Eight years of work led to the erection in 2003 of a wind turbine named Little Soldier. This groundbreaking project and others that are in the works use the generation and transmission grid that carries hydroelectric power from the Missouri River.
Gough has been energized by Intertribal COUP’s success. “Fighting uranium, fighting coal mining, fighting the sulfur Exxon mine. All that fighting begins to take a lot of wear and tear on you,” he said. “It’s very good for us now working for renewable energy and for reducing carbon emissions. Renewable energy offers you the opportunity to put your efforts and your energy into something really positive.”