Tribal sovereignty and pumped storage hydropower in Nevada

Daniel Rothberg wrote this week about an important case in Nevada that is testing the boundaries of the question of tribal sovereignty:

The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe filed a formal motion earlier this month to intervene in a federal regulatory proceeding that could eventually pave the way for a pumped storage hydropower project on the tribe’s land — a project the tribe opposes.

The filing comes only weeks after the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) ruled that it would deny permits for hydropower projects on tribal land in cases where projects do not have a tribe’s support.

There’s a lot of enthusiasm right now about pumped storage hydropower – a way to add a sort of battery to the electrical grid to smooth out the fluctuations of solar and wind power. Here’s Daniel:

Pumped storage hydropower projects generate electricity by cycling water between two reservoirs at different elevations. They pump water from a low-elevation reservoir to a higher-elevation reservoir when there is excess energy available. When energy is needed, the water is released back to the lower reservoir and generates electricity as it flows down an elevation gradient and through a turbine — with the help of gravity.

But the sovereignty question here seems straightforward: pumped hydro may be of value broadly, but if the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe doesn’t want it on tribal land, isn’t their right to refuse the project inherent in the very concept of sovereignty?

I don’t know FERC legal stuff at all, but I’ve spent a lot of time wrestling with the question of the sovereignty of indigenous communities in the United States. Its evolution in New Mexico is a central question Bob Berrens and I wrestle with in our forthcoming book, Ribbons of Green.

Tribal/Pueblo sovereignty – a nation within a nation, separate but also a part – is inevitably murky. The Pyramid Lake Paiute effort to intervene here is worth following.

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