Thursday, July 10, 2008

Crow Seek Gain Through Coal

They tried casinos on the Crow Indian reservation. The one designed to bring in the biggest crowds, Res-a-Vegas, went bust within a year and is now a fireworks stand.

But now the Crow are convinced a really big jackpot lies below the surface: coal.

With energy prices soaring, the poverty-stricken Crow want to tap the vast deposits underneath their 2 million acres of land. The tribe estimates the ground contains 9 billion tons of extractable coal, or enough to meet the nation's needs for almost a decade.

"We're not just trying to help ourselves today," said Joanie Rowland, who directs the 12,000-member tribe's nascent energy program. "We want to set up the reservation so that it will prosper and help the future generations."

Federal red tape, turbulent tribal politics that can scare off big business, and environmental worries have prevented some of the West's impoverished tribes from fully exploiting their oil, gas and coal deposits. But now, rising demand for energy _ along with new federal laws giving Indians more say over their mineral resources _ could help the Crow and other tribes get their way.

"There's a misconception about Indian tribes that they all have big gaming revenues. We don't have that," said tribal Chairman Carl Venne. "But we do have vast resources." He added: "The window of opportunity is open."

The Crow reservation lies about 60 miles from the nearest city of any consequence, Billings. It is on the remote northern edge of the Powder River Basin, which produces nearly half the nation's coal and hundreds of billions of cubic feet of natural gas annually.

Life on the reservation, however, is defined by a different set of numbers: 47 percent unemployment; a per capita income of just $7,400 (one-third the national average); and federal health care subsidies that run dry six months into the year.

Much of the land on the reservation is used to grow wheat and sugar beets and raise cattle.

The tribe is looking to extract the coal and build a multibillion-dollar, coal-to-liquids plant that would process the rock into diesel and other fuels. Tribal leaders say if they could tap their underground riches, they could expand their clinic and upgrade the reservation's aging roads and water system.


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