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Tribal Land Hamstrung on Developing Energy Projects

by Bob Morris, published


The 2005 Energy Policy Act was supposed to streamline the process for tribes to get permits for oil and gas drilling on their land and for renewable energy projects as well. Instead, it had the unfortunate consequence of making the process so complicated and expensive that no tribe has even tried to use the new procedures. While tribes can now solicit leases and energy projects without pre-approval from the Interior Secretary, any resultant projects are subject to environmental reviews that private projects do not have to deal with.

Such reviews can take years and are costly. So instead, development is often happening on private land near tribal land. A lawyer for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe says this "results in oil and gas wells drilled all around tribal land, draining tribal resources. It's a double whammy, because these are often impoverished communities." The tribes lose out on lease money and jobs as their own reserves of oil and gas get siphoned off.

Sen. John Barasso (R-WY) is sponsoring Senate Bill 1684, the Indian Tribal Energy Development and Self-Determination Act Amendments of 2011. It seeks to change this. Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI), chair of the Senate Committee is a co-sponsor. The same federal environmental standards would still be in place but tribes would be able to do it themselves under their tribal resource energy agreements with the government.  Tribes could also develop resources with private industry without approval as long as the tribe retains majority ownership. Further, tribes would be treated as states and have more leeway in developing biomass projects.

Barasso introduced the bill in Oct. 2011 saying "My bill will help break down barriers to energy development in Indian Country.  It will spur economic development, provide Indian people with an opportunity to make a good living, and give the tribes greater control over the management and development of their own trust resources.”

It seems only fair that tribal lands be able to develop their resources under the same rules that apply to everyone else.

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