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Campbell: The truth about the Indian energy bill

A little over one year ago I wrote an op-ed piece for Indian Country Today entitled "Unlocking the Potential of Indian Tribal Energy" in which I outlined our country's need to have greater independence from foreign sources of energy supplies and the impacts of high energy prices on the nation's economy, on our country's poor in general, and on Indian people in particular.

I pointed out the puzzling fact that, while many tribal lands are blessed with abundant deposits of oil and gas and other energy resources, historically the resources have been overlooked and undervalued by producers to the great detriment of Indian tribes and their members.

As I write today, none of these conditions has abated, and once again we are facing the real possibility of a natural gas crisis this winter as a result of exceptionally high prices and low inventories. So why haven't tribes with commercially viable quantities of oil, gas and coal on their reservations played a greater role in the domestic energy market?

There is not a simple answer to this question because many historical, geographic, cultural and other factors have combined to create the problem. But one of the major contributing factors is the trustee of the Indians - the Federal government itself - which over the years has wrapped the Indian mineral leasing process in a bundle of rules, regulations and bureaucratic red tape. The maze of statutes, rules and regulations applicable to energy mineral leasing imposes real burdens on the development of Indian minerals and discourages industry from pursuing leases of Indian resources.

Earlier this year I introduced a bill, the Indian Energy Development and Self Determination Act, to help eliminate some of that red tape and level the playing field for tribal-owned minerals. Last month I offered a revised version of this bill as an amendment to the energy bill currently pending before the U.S. Senate.

My amendment, which will be voted on as early as next week, will provide tribes with an alternative to the status quo leasing process and enable them to voluntarily "opt in" to a different set of leasing rules.

Under the new, voluntary system an Indian tribe that meets certain capacity requirements would negotiate a government-to-government agreement with the Secretary of Interior, and that agreement would form the basic framework and rules for mineral leasing and development on the reservation. Most importantly, these agreements would allow tribes to negotiate and enter into leases and business agreements with third parties for the development of energy resources such as oil, gas and coal.

Energy development would remain subject to federal environmental laws such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act, and the Endangered Species Act, and the public would have notice of and opportunity to comment on proposed development. Importantly, the process would be greatly streamlined so that tribes can compete with private holders of energy reserves.

My amendment was crafted with considerable input from, and has the support of, many Indian tribes and tribal organizations involved in Indian energy. Despite the widespread tribal support for the Amendment, a small but vocal group of tribes and environmental organizations is opposing the amendment and has mis-characterized what it does and does not do, alleging that it "does away with" the federal government's trust responsibility, allows the Department of Interior to engage in fraudulent activities, and opens up the reservations to energy development without the tribes' consent.

These same people are also making outlandish and misleading allegations about the environmental provisions in the Indian title of the energy bill.

Contrary to the shrill declarations of a few opponents that the bill will "wreak havoc" on the environment, the bill in fact would require those tribes that opt-in to the program to comply with unprecedented requirements for careful environmental review of energy development, opportunities for the public to be informed of and comment on proposed development projects. The bill also establishes a process for persons environmentally impacted by development to petition the government if the tribe is not adhering to its committments relating to energy development projects.

The charges against the Amendment, despite being distortions or falsehoods, are being made anyway in an effort to defeat the entire Indian portion to the energy bill.

Sadly, these efforts are not coming from where Indians have come to expect such attacks: the non-Indian forces that reflexively oppose tribal self-government, but from those that see Indian self-determination as a fundamental threat and remain committed to the principle that the Secretary should retain a tight grip on tribal governments and their decisions and stand as a guarantor of all tribal decisions.

I believe in the principles of Indian self-determination and hold fast to the idea that the Indian tribes - not the United States government and not the environmental movement - are best situated to make decisions that affect them and the lives of their members.

These principles have guided the Indian energy bill and will continue to guide my efforts in the energy debate and beyond.

Colorado's senior U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell was the first American Indian to chair the Indian Affairs Committee. Sen. Campbell, a Republican, is a member of three other key Senate committees: Appropriations Committee; Energy and Natural Resources Committee; and Veterans' Affairs Committee. In addition Senator Campbell chairs the prestigious Helsinki Commission.