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Big Stone II: A sinking ship

Tribal peoples of the Midwest are counting on you, Bill Gates, to keep their air clean and their water mercury-free. Gates' personal investment company, Cascade Investment Management, has the opportunity to stop the continued burning of Powder River Basin coal in South Dakota. After several years of planning, Otter Tail Power's Big Stone I is to be joined by the 580 MW proposed addition Big Stone II, but timing is critical as the project is gathering a final commitment from investors like Gates who have the ability to prevent construction altogether.

Meanwhile, tribes in the Powder River Basin are fighting for higher water pollution restrictions to help protect the water being contaminated by mining the primary coal to be burned at Big Stone II. Those affected by the project's harmful pollutants bear the true costs of coal, but investors are more concerned with the money to be made by burning coal. However, in a time where climate change is quickly becoming a reality and villages are falling into oceans, the price of coal continues to rise as clean legislation is repeatedly introduced and passed. Even Warren Buffett, investor extraordinaire, has seen new development in the coal market as a risky source of investment. Last year alone, Buffet cancelled plans to build six coal plants, but Bill Gates and Otter Tail Power continue to push forward with plans to drain energy from this outdated and finite source of fuel.

On paper, Otter Tail expresses their high hopes for wind in the future, but in a state where wind potential is ranked 4th highest in the country, they continue to seek out new and risky coal ventures while others are looking to clean investments based on renewable sources. For instance, South Dakota's Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe has repeatedly demanded consultation with proponents of Big Stone II as it will directly affect Sisseton tribal members. Tired of seeing an old energy economy and not having a say, the Sisseton people are now working with Citizens Energy to tap into South Dakota's high wind potential by constructing a 100 MW wind farm on tribal lands. Others tired of burning coal include eight Minnesota legislators, who last year wrote to Gates' investment company asking for green investment in place of other energy sources, but received poor reply from company representatives.

Gates, Cascade Investment Management and Otter Tail should all reassess what a good investment looks like and cut their losses. Any good investment should yield more money than that invested. Just last week, plans were cancelled for the $1.25 billion Santee Cooper coal plant to be built in South Carolina. After years of planning and $217 million spent on permitting and planning, the Santee Cooper board saw the proposed federal cap-and-trade legislation as posing too significant a risk to drive up the costs of coal-fired plants to make a profit. Closer to home, other utility companies refuse to consider investment in Big Stone II power. Last month, the very same day Basin Electric Power in South Dakota pulled plans for a new coal plant facility, Elk River Municipal Utility rejected Big Stone II's proposal to become a partial owner in the project. Former investors in Big Stone II, Great River Energy and Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency, have already pulled their plugs on the project. The reality is that you cannot successfully sell coal projects today. Coal is too risky, too dirty and altogether a bad investment.

Proponents of Big Stone II report the project will cost $1.6 billion, but fail to mention this number has not been re-drawn since 2006. It appears in a time where South Dakotans, Minnesotans and tribal nations are already suffering from the high rise in energy prices, that Big Stone II should not be built to only contribute to the problem.

It is time to move past coal and tribes like Sisseton are tired of not being at the table. Creating their own energy and passing their own legislation, tribes are demanding better. Whether it is the neighboring Sisseton community breathing in the carbon emitted by Big Stone II or the Northern Cheyenne fighting for more stringent pollution standards on the coal being mined, the children, elders and waters of Native peoples will be directly impacted by this project.

Timing is critical. Big Stone II is looking for a reiterated commitment from its primary investors by mid-September, without this, it is likely Big Stone II will not be built. Utility investors include: Otter Tail Power, Central Minnesota Municipal Power Agency, Heartland Consumers Power District, Missouri River Energy Services and Montana-Dakota Utilities Co. It is time to create clean energy, not to invest in dirty coal. People around the country agree and Congress is moving forward to support them. Utility investors, take your money elsewhere and get ready for producing wind power.

(Nellis Kennedy is a member of the Navajo Nation and is National Campaign Associate with Honor the Earth. Winona LaDuke is Honor the Earth's Executive Director, a White Earth enrollee, an author and twice a Vice Presidential candidate with Ralph Nader on the Green Party ticket.)