The Biden administration has given unprecedented prioritization to climate and environmental justice goals. This includes the historic agency and administrative appointments of Tribal advisers and leaders; the restoration of protections to areas of Indigenous significance; co-designing collaborative management of federal lands; and support for the Inflation Reduction Act’s landmark $60 billion investment for environmental justice communities. Furthermore, a major pillar of the administration’s plan to meet global climate targets has been a renewed focus on the clean energy transition, including deploying 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030.1
Previously, the fossil fuel industry has dominated the energy matrix, which has allowed modern economies and infrastructure to emerge—but at a significant cost. This infrastructure has been built on or near Indigenous lands and in historically marginalized communities that bear disproportionate shares of environmental health costs.2 The industry has created a dependency on a dirty and financially volatile system forced upon Indigenous people.3 Building a new energy system presents an opportunity to restore justice to these communities and ensure that new infrastructure and investments build and maintain thriving communities.
Investments in offshore wind energy, specifically through the Inflation Reduction Act, are aimed at incentivizing developers and industry to build generation, transmission, and storage facilities at a pace and scale that is necessary to address the climate crisis.4 To ensure Indigenous communities have the standing, capacity, and information they need to engage and benefit, policymakers must make use of several parallel policies and investments to foster engagement, while moving forward at the pace needed to reach U.S. clean energy goals.
Indigenous people are stewards of America’s waters and lands, and their generational knowledge is an invaluable resource for protecting biodiversity. They have been disproportionately affected by climate change: Their homes are being washed away by rising seas; their agricultural livelihoods are being threatened by warming temperatures that cause earlier harvesting seasons; and ocean acidification threatens the sustainability of their use of marine foods.5 Economic and policy barriers continue to marginalize Tribal communities, and Indigenous people are key to protecting biodiversity.
Tribes and Indigenous groups near the ocean know what is at stake, but they need additional capacity and resources to be able to save their communities.
Tribes and Indigenous groups know what is at stake, but they need additional capacity and resources to be able to save their communities. Offshore wind offers unprecedented opportunity to reduce climate-forcing emissions from the energy sector but also the potential for new impacts, such as changes to marine life around wind turbines and the construction of new transmission lines. Now more than ever, policymakers must foster strong environmental review and public engagement processes to avoid harming communities and to develop clean resources to meet energy demand.
Tribes must be empowered to engage in the energy transition, including resources to dedicate capacity to develop community benefits agreements (CBAs) in emerging clean energy host communities; supporting Indigenous-serving educational institutions and apprenticeship programs; and utilizing Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge (ITEK) to minimize the environmental impacts of development.
Ensure robust community and workforce benefit agreements are developed
Historic marginalization and unjust burdens have been passed to Tribes and Indigenous people. Relevant federal agencies can and must create pathways to right the wrongs of the past by holding themselves and developers accountable. A key hurdle in developing clean energy infrastructure projects is local opposition due to inadequate engagement with project sponsors.6
Offshore wind projects can bring together communities behind a safe and reliable energy source that, when developed with community benefits agreements and adaptive management frameworks, can ensure that developers commit to lasting contributions to the community for decades to come. CBAs are legal agreements between developers and community groups that detail how the developer will provide financial and social benefits in exchange for community support for the project.7 This tool can create beneficial partnerships for all stakeholders, generate clean energy, and center historically marginalized Tribes and Indigenous people so that they reap the benefits of a new, booming industry.
Among other purposes, CBAs ensure that the financial benefits of new industry development are not outsourced. They provide developers the support of the community—a social license to operate—under agreed-upon stipulations. This means that developers and Indigenous host communities can share the benefits of new infrastructure while simultaneously addressing the burdens that local and marginalized people may face. CBAs can include workforce training and apprenticeships, hiring, and procurement requirements, as well as investments in related social needs such as housing and health care.
Developers and Indigenous host communities can share the benefits of new infrastructure while simultaneously addressing the burdens that local and marginalized people may face.
There is historical precedent for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to offer a 5 percent credit to bidders that have executed a legally binding CBA. The BOEM made such an offer as early as 2014, when it held the Atlantic Wind Lease Sale 4. This has remained a consistent offer and was exemplified most recently when the BOEM held the December 2022 California Coast Wind Lease Sale 1.8 While the credit was offered and some developers had conversations with Tribal groups, the developers that won the auction had not meaningfully engaged with Tribes, and developers that had formal agreements did not acquire leases. The BOEM has highlighted the importance of Tribal sovereignty and early engagement with Tribal groups; therefore, it should weigh engagement more heavily when accepting bids.9 This practice will ensure that communities are being consulted thoughtfully on projects as early in the process as possible. A model for this is the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which—under the U.S. Department of Energy—requires CBAs for battery manufacturing procurements. The BOEM should meaningfully increase the percentage of the credit given to bidders so that additional funds from developers can be channeled toward creating resilient and collaborative community engagement and benefits. Otherwise, the BOEM should require CBAs for all offshore wind bids.
Yet while CBAs offer the space to negotiate benefits, these benefits must be readily accessible to Tribal and Indigenous communities, with strong terms and conditions that quantify the cash value of the benefits and provide strict enforcement measures to preserve accountability over the term of the relationship. Developers should consider new ways to expand CBAs to incorporate more specific Tribal and Indigenous needs, including deeper and longer-term partnerships. For example, CBAs could be a tool to include Tribes as co-managers or even co-owners of offshore wind projects, with appropriate federal incentives to encourage this more ambitious partnership.
For example, the Northern Chumash Tribal Council—the nominators of the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary within Chumash heritage waters—has been actively consulting with the federal government regarding the relationship it will have with the offshore wind energy area near the proposed sanctuary.10 CBAs could include regional research funding to establish baseline monitoring, inform ecosystem-based management, and uplift Tribal and local researchers, enabling them to continue to explore the area and ensuring that they have access to the most up-to-date science. Such data will enhance informed decision-making, allowing offshore wind energy to be developed with minimal disturbances to environmentally and culturally vital species, habitats, and coastal land.
Support Indigenous-serving educational institutions
New and emerging technologies in offshore wind development will require training a new workforce. This workforce must be local so that Tribes and Indigenous people who host offshore energy development in their waters will directly benefit. Tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) and Tribal-serving institutions of higher learning are integral to preserving Native American culture and bolstering opportunities for Indigenous people.11 Currently, the Department of Energy’s Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs provides online training curricula and a resource library to learn more about energy projects.12 These things should be expanded, and Congress should appropriate additional funds to create grant programs that fund high-quality, industry-relevant training at TCUs—such as Iḷisaġvik College in Alaska and Northwest Indian College in Washington state—and other Tribal-centric educational institutions that intentionally center service products toward Indigenous people and communities, regardless of federal status.13 These include both federally recognized Tribal governments and their Tribal entities and democratically elected Indian- or Indigenous-controlled community public benefit nonprofit corporations.
These programs should include the input of labor and employers and connect directly to training and employment, which may also include opportunities such as registered apprenticeships and preapprenticeships, on-the-job training, and internships. Funding should also include allowances for supportive services, such as child care and transportation, that increase the likelihood that students will complete their programs.
Native American-Serving Non-Tribal Institutions (NASNTI), Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian-Serving Institutions (AANH), and Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions (AANAPISI) must be included in these programs in order to bridge the regional gaps that TCUs face and to ensure that all affected communities reap the benefits. Other institutions should be included on a region-by-region basis; for example, Cal Poly Humboldt and College of the Redwoods serve Tribal and Indigenous students in Northern California, a potentially critical region for offshore wind development. This will bring Indigenous peoples directly into the industry, create long-term positive impacts in communities, train local workforces to construct and maintain offshore wind projects, and garner broader support for offshore wind from Tribes and Indigenous communities.
Strengthen registered apprenticeship programs for Indigenous communities in economies experiencing energy transitions
Apprenticeships can lead to quality, well-paying jobs: Upon completing apprenticeship programs, 93 percent of apprentices retain employment, with an average salary of $77,000 per year.14 Furthermore, in 2017, American Indian and Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander apprentices who completed programs had among the highest median exit wages at $30 per hour ($36 per hour in 2022 dollars).15
The Inflation Reduction Act includes tax credits for developers who use registered apprenticeships in the construction of clean energy facilities, but the federal government must direct additional resources toward apprenticeships for Native, Tribal, and Indigenous communities.16 According to the U.S. Department of Labor, out of the almost 600,000 active apprenticeships, only 2 percent are held by American Indians and Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islanders.17 Given the Biden administration’s prioritization of offshore wind, more opportunities should be available within this rapidly growing industry.
Lack of awareness of these apprenticeships’ availability, and lack of opportunities to apply, have hindered access to them. The Department of Labor’s Division of Indian and Native American Programs (DINAP) funds grant programs that provide connections to registered apprenticeships and other training opportunities.18 In Seattle, Washington—the ZIP code with the highest percentage of Native American people in the United States—only five apprenticeship opportunities are available within 100 miles.19 In Humboldt County, California, the area closest to the Pacific offshore wind energy area, only one apprenticeship opportunity is available within 100 miles.20 The DINAP should work in conjunction with these apprenticeship programs to provide more opportunities in Tribal and Indigenous communities.
There is a lack of federally supported apprenticeships for Tribal and Indigenous people that span a diverse array of fields that support the clean energy sector. Currently, the First Nations Development Institute, a Native-led 501(c)(3), hosts the Native Farmer and Rancher Apprenticeship Network. In its 41 years of existence, the nonprofit has successfully managed more than 2,000 grants in the Great Plains and the Southwest United States.21 While this initiative has made a difference in the farming and ranching field, the U.S. Department of Labor should further its efforts to create federally supported apprenticeship opportunities in Tribal and Indigenous communities that are relevant to the clean energy transition. Ideally, these opportunities should be coordinated with other Tribal capacity building needs, including policy development, planning, consultation, mapping, engagement with local utilities, and legal consultation. This coordination is particularly important given the array of historic investments made by the Inflation Reduction Act in Tribal and Indigenous communities.22
Utilize Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge to minimize the environmental impacts of development
The United States has a critical need to build clean energy projects in order to limit the impacts of climate change. Simultaneously, environmental disturbances from new infrastructure must be minimized to protect biodiversity and sacred places.
Mitigating impacts on species and habitats will be vital throughout the permitting, siting, transmission planning, and development stages of new offshore wind energy projects. The use of already-existing Indigenous scientific expertise that spans generations will allow projects to benefit from strong relationships with the stewards of the land and limit delays associated with research gaps. The use of Indigenous knowledge can be communicated in a variety of ways, including through oral histories. In 2013, the Coastal Indian Tribes shared stories regarding the eulachon fish that led the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to decide to designate it as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.23
In 2022, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) jointly released “Guidance for Federal Departments and Agencies on Indigenous Knowledge.”24 This first-of-its-kind guidance will create space for meaningful input for expert ITEK in federal research, policy, and decision-making. Twenty-five federal entities engaged in this effort alongside more than 100 Tribal, Native, and Indigenous members and stakeholders. The guidance suggests that agencies should collaborate with Tribal nations and Indigenous people on a multitude of statutes, including the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a key step for the permitting of offshore wind energy. The CEQ and the OSTP should consider providing additional guidance for the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, as the bureau is the lead federal entity overseeing safety on offshore wind projects and ensuring that they meet environmental requirements throughout their life cycles.
The BOEM has also outlined, for activities under its jurisdiction, the use of ITEK in the decision-making process in the Alaska and Pacific regions.25 It should develop additional guidance to include Tribal and Indigenous engagement earlier in the offshore wind energy development process. This is in line with the concept of “free, prior, and informed consent” (FPIC) that the United Nations has long protected and that numerous environmental and conservation organizations have accepted.26 The BOEM should explicitly acknowledge and respect FPIC. The concept puts the decision-making power back in the hands of Indigenous groups who, in the end, should be able to exercise their rights regarding the impacts being made on their homelands.
FPIC puts the decision-making power back in the hands of Indigenous groups who, in the end, should be able to exercise their rights regarding the impacts being made on their homelands.
Federal agencies should also consider how to compensate Tribes and Indigenous people for the use of their ecological knowledge.27 Indigenous people should be paid for their expertise and knowledge just as scientists, engineers, and data analysts are. The tangible benefits of knowledge sharing will strengthen partnerships, rebuild trust, and stop the cycle of extractive relationships.28
Offshore wind energy is key to meeting the Biden administration’s ambitious clean energy goals. To thoughtfully support Tribes and other Indigenous people while meeting its goal of deploying 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030, the Biden administration must consider how to grow the capacity of Native and Indigenous people to benefit from the clean energy projects undertaken in their backyards, understand and minimize the environmental impacts of offshore wind development, and ensure these projects are coordinated with other federal priorities such as building out broadband services in Tribal areas. These projects will have a breadth of impacts for Indigenous groups who have sacred relationships with the ocean, river-migrating fishes, wildlife, and lands both coastal and inland that could potentially be affected by offshore wind turbines and transmission infrastructure. Tribes and Indigenous people must be brought into these discussions early so that information-sharing is equitable and the best choices can be made for the energy future, while ensuring that historical wrongs are discontinued and environmental impacts are mitigated.
The authors would like to thank Chairwoman Violet Sage Walker of the Northern Chumash Tribal Council, Dr. Nievita Bueno Watts, Gregory Gehr, Joel Moffett of Native Americans in Philanthropy, Mark Haggerty, Marina Zhavoronkova, Marcella Bombardieri, Angelo Villagomez, Margaret Cooney, Meghan Miller, and Will Beaudouin for comments that improved this brief.