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Groups examine pending energy legislation plans

DENVER – Two major Native organizations welcome renewable energy planning but strike a cautionary note about rights of way across Indian lands.

The Denver-based Council of Energy Resources Tribe and the National Congress of American Indians, whose member tribes total more than 300, expressed concern to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources which is considering legislation that would establish a national renewable energy transmission grid.

“Many Indian tribes undoubtedly support the broad goal of establishing renewable energy zones, (but) certain provisions in the bill could result in Indian lands being condemned through the exercise of eminent domain authority,” the organizations stated in a May 12 letter to U.S. Sens. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., committee chair, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, ranking member.

“We wanted to be sure tribal land is protected,” said A. David Lester, CERT executive director.

“As it was, it could allow a transmission company building a line to condemn land using eminent domain except on federal land – and there it doesn’t specifically mention Indian tribes and it could be interpreted unfavorably.”

The organizations are glad the pending bill requires transmission infrastructure builders to follow laws governing rights of way on Indian lands and to obtain tribal consent for them.

“In addition, we believe it appropriate and in keeping with current law and policy to include Indian tribes on a par with states in those sections of the bill regarding planning and those involving recommendations to federal authorities for purposes of avoiding culturally sensitive or other lands,” the letter read.

The stakes are high in Indian country for a tribal voice in the extraction, production and disposal of renewable and traditional energy sources. An estimated one-quarter of on-shore oil and gas reserves, one-third of low-sulfur coal, and nearly half the green energy to meet the nation’s electric power demand are said to be on Indian lands.

Current legislative proposals will designate renewable energy zones and an accompanying energy transmission grid, both of which will require streamlined permitting and other processes to expedite construction.

Lester also expressed concern about a recent proposal that would cut payments to the Hopi, Navajo, and Crow tribes under provisions of the Abandoned Mine Lands program.

The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act provides a fee for each ton of coal mined for abandoned mine reclamation, with half the fee going into the secretary of the Interior’s discretionary account and half to the state or tribe in whose jurisdiction the mines are located, he said.

After reclamation is completed, the states and tribes can use the remaining AML money for such purposes as offsetting the socioeconomic and other impacts of mining which, in the western U.S., affect the three tribal nations.

Lester said the Hopi and Navajo nations have suffered lost income, the former from the closure of Mohave Power Plant and the latter from cutbacks at Black Mesa Mine, while the Crow (Apsaalooke) are trying to develop its economy through the conversion of coal to synfuels.

The proposal to cut nearly $150 million from AML funds to those tribes and several states next year stems from a Bush-era plan that was allowed to surface because some of the Obama administration’s staff-level positions remained unfilled for some time, Lester suggested.

One effect of the proposal would be to shift AML funds from the West, the focus of current mining, to such eastern states as West Virginia, Tennessee, Illinois, and others where abandoned mines are plentiful.