The Impacts of an Energy Project

There are many potential impacts of any project — potential disturbances to land, water, air, wildlife, and cultural resources. It is important to understand the impacts and make choices accordingly in the context of the local resources and the conscience of the people.

In general, at the federal government level, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for mitigating the environmental impacts of energy projects. For sizeable new projects, they require an environmental impact study that will look at pollution and conservation issues. Environmental impacts include visual impacts — of windmills, roads, drilling rigs, power plants, roads, towers, pipes, or dams and lakes — and there may be fish, wildlife, or plant impacts. Please see Environmental Considerations for the pros and cons of different energy technologies, and the agencies that regulate such energy projects. Federal regulations provide some protection against these impacts, but will not recognize when the plant or animal is of special significance to your tribe.

Energy projects may also have local or regional health impacts, even though they meet environmental regulations. Uranium poisoning of water supplies or black lung from coal mining are well known, as are the side effects of various types of pollution and waste products. Indoor air pollution from cooking and heating fires is a factor in asthma and other respiratory problems, but so is pollution from coal and diesel fuel combustion. The tribe's traditional sources of energy may have health impacts, and the tribe may want to consider whether new energy sources will have a greater or lesser impact on the health of the people.

It is also important to look at the cultural resource impacts of any project. These may be short-term intended consequences, or long-term and unintended. For example, there have been cases where hydroelectric dams built on the Missouri river in which the flooding caused by the dam was expected and planned for, but unexpectedly, long-term wave action uncovered shoreline burial sites.

Cultural issues must be considered when choosing where the equipment will go - in siting the project. The ground will be disturbed on the surface and perhaps deeper through construction, access roads, pipelines and transmission towers. Making sure there are not archaeological, spiritual, or other cultural impacts is obviously important.

Your tribe may have special beliefs or sensitivities that impact the decisions, or call for extra discussions or even education. For example, some people believe that wind turbines slice through the air in a harmful way. Cultural issues also come into play in geothermal energy development on tribal lands, as is addressed in a paper presented to the Geothermal Resources Council in 2003, Native American Issues in Geothermal Energy (PDF 183 KB). Download Adobe Reader.

It is important to have public participation in choosing the project site, so that many have heard the pros and cons and had a say in the outcome. Talk to knowledgeable elders in order to learn as much as possible about the potential sites. Develop land histories. Do an inventory of significant plants. Perform archaeological field surveys.

Of course, there may be no tribal precedent for the project being considered. For example, how does the tribe feel about power lines? What do tribal elders think about splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen to use the hydrogen as fuel? It may be necessary to consult spiritual people for guidance, or to perform ceremonies, such as asking permission to use the land, wind, and water.

Addressing these issues will help you evaluate the impact of proposed changes. In making changes you are disturbing what's been appropriate for a long time. How much will it be disturbed? How harmful will it be? The tribe needs to evaluate these impacts and factor them into the decisions of what kind of energy project to carry out, where to put the equipment, how to explain the project to the people, or develop the necessary awareness.