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Raw materials needed for energy have been found on Native Americans' sacred land


Higher gas prices often supercharge demand for new mines to help electrify the U.S. transportation grid. But in the American West right now, several proposed sites like those where copper's 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 talking about the perils of the climate crisis. But companies like Rio Tinto Copper know the energy market is changing fast.

VICKY PEACEY: The world is making a transition, and the world wants to make a transition quickly, right? And the Biden administration has these very ambitious goals so we can address climate.

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

PEACEY: To have 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 meet up to a quarter of current U.S. copper demand, 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, only getting drier with climate change.

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

SIEGLER: Members of the San Carlos Apache Tribe marched through the town of Globe, Ariz., near Oak Flat, where the mine is planned. It's a 45-mile march and run from their isolated reservation to their ancestral land of Oak Flat, an important ceremonial site. Twenty-two-year-old Naelyn Pike worries the war in Ukraine will be used as an excuse to fast-track the mine.

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

SIEGLER: The tribes are behind a legal challenge to halt a federal land swap passed during the Obama administration that allows the copper mine to finally be developed. Western Apaches say the U.S. government has broken treaties meant to protect their sacred lands. Wendsler Nosie Sr. is a former chairman of the San Carlos Tribe who's been camping at Oak Flat in protest.

WENDSLER NOSIE SR: Yeah, this is our ancestral land. I mean, we have Indigenous rights. You know, the government hasn't done anything to really secure our children and our children's future.

SIEGLER: Still, just down the canyon in the town of Superior, there's a sense that the deposit is so big the mine will get developed eventually anyway. Mayor Mila Besich's family has mined here for generations.

MILA BESICH: You know, we're very respectful of our tribal neighbors and their concerns and their consultation. But at the same time, if this mine doesn't open, it's a huge detriment to America's economy.

SIEGLER: This is one of several fights that proposed green energy mines from Arizona to Nevada to Idaho where tribes say they're once again being told to get out of the way 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's been tracking these growing Indigenous protest movements. She says the U.S. government has historically run roughshod over its treaty obligations, but today may be different.

EAGLEWOMAN: And we think we've got the ear of a U.S. president that believes in the dignity of the United States' promises that were made to Native Americans.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF WHALE FALL'S "YOU GO UP, I GO DOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.