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Indian gaming offers a pattern

DENVER – Indian gaming from its infancy to present-day prosperity can provide a model for tribes developing renewable energy, David Lester, Muscogee Creek, executive director of the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, told those attending a conference Oct. 25 – 29.

“The Indian gaming industry would look much different than it does today” if tribes had involved other owners within reservation boundaries, he said, urging tribal ownership and development of small- or large-scale renewable energy ventures.

Lester’s address was among those presented at an annual program review conference for some 40 to 50 projects under the Department of Energy’s Tribal Energy Program, said Lizana K. Pierce, TEP project manager.

Jodi Archambault Gillette, Standing Rock Sioux, associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, presented the White House perspective to the conference, reiterating President Barack Obama’s continued emphasis on programs like TEP that reduce dependence on foreign oil, curb pollution and create a new generation of renewable energy jobs.

“Indian land comprises five percent of the land area of the United States, but contains an estimated 10 percent of all energy resources in the United States.” -Tribal Energy Program, Department of Energy

She said the president is “committed to strengthening the nation-to-nation relationship between the United States and Indian tribes,” citing DOE and tribal energy funding, interagency coordination meetings on Indian issues, permanent reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, the Tribal Law and Order Act, and other initiatives.

In a legislative update to TEP conference attendees, Rollie Wilson, senior counsel to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, questioned why so few DOE resources go to tribes, noting the Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs has not been fully implemented and less than half of one percent of DOE’s $2.2 billion for its Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy [www .eere.energy.gov] has been directed to tribal programs.

DOE funds state offices to meet needs in such areas as weatherization, but states may not in turn fund tribes in those areas, he said. Federal money could go directly to tribes, as is the case for the Navajo Nation, Northern Arapaho Tribe, and the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, he added.

Retiring Indian Affairs Committee chairman Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., has introduced the Indian Energy Promotion and Parity Act of 2010, pending before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, that would integrate and coordinate federal energy programs and empower tribes in energy development, he said. The fate of that and other legislation is uncertain.

Tracing gaming and energy development history, Lester said that since CERT was created in 1975, Indian affairs and energy markets “have both been revolutionized” from an era in which termination was a common theme to the present, when “Indian policy is now securely based in tribal sovereignty.”

Tribal practices have centered on energy enterprises coming onto Indian lands, where tribes would get a bonus at lease signing and then collect royalties, but would have no mechanism to check and verify income.

“Even if we’d collected all that was owed us, we still would be missing the significant wealth that is escaping the tribal economy,” he said.

The next step is to own the assets that produce wealth from the resource base, because at each step, “the value of the resource grows exponentially” and becomes an integral part of the U.S. economy which is “possibly the most productive economy in the history of mankind.”

Gaming is a model to look at with renewable energy development, he said, noting that tribes’ first gaming enterprises were not “big fancy casinos” but bingo games and, before that, such games of chance as hand-games. The field started small, but “grew and grew” as tribes gained experience in managing bingo operations, and about 20 years from early bingo, the first large casino was built and gaming prospered.

Nearly every tribe has a renewable energy source for at least community-scale projects that could promote energy self-sufficiency and provide a buffer against price and supply uncertainty, he said.

On a larger scale, even though barriers exist for Indian energy development, “the gaming tribes didn’t wait for all the barriers to fall” to start reaching their goals. “The Southern Ute Tribe with its natural gas and coal-bed methane has shown tribes can move ahead even with their structural barriers, if they persevere.”

Recalling the early days of gaming and lessons learned, “We can be dazzled by the sky’s-the-limit kind of thinking, or we can go step-by-step.”

At the conference opening, Carol Harvey, Diné, Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs executive secretary, welcomed attendees and noted a geothermal well is currently being drilled just outside Colorado’s capitol, affirming the state’s commitment to energy efficiency and renewable energy supplies.

The review included presentations by federal officials, those involved in the tribal energy business, and tribal members with energy projects from across the U.S. Representatives who spoke included those from TEP’s Golden, Colo. office, the U.S. departments of Agriculture and Housing and Urban Development, and the BIA.