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Indian title of Energy Bill poised to pass floor vote in Senate

WASHINGTON - The National Energy Bill is expected to pass the Senate on a party line vote July 28, and along with it an Indian title that would streamline the tribal energy development process for those tribes that voluntarily relieve the federal government of liability for projects gone wrong.

Under a provision that has survived close votes to amend it out in committee and the full Senate, tribes could choose to submit projects to the Secretary of Interior for one-time approval, bypassing the further approvals for different phases of a project that are currently required for all tribes.

Foes, led by President Joe Shirley of the Navajo Nation, maintain the streamlining provision would erode the federal trust obligation toward tribes. Additional Navajo testimony at a committee hearing in May raised doubts about the funding of technical assistance for energy-developing tribes: the Department of Interior "is currently facing severe financial and administrative constraints and cannot be expected to successfully administer the monies authorized ?"

Watchdog organizations fear that in any case, and most certainly without adequate funding for technical assistance, tribes could be easy pickings so to speak for organized and financially resourceful energy firms pursuing development at all costs, without regard for tribal communities or the best long-term use of tribal resources. Environmental concerns have also been raised.

None of that will avail if the majority-party Republicans get their way. Paul Moorehead, lead counsel to Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, closed discussion of the streamlining provision in a conversation with President Shirley after all the votes had been cast. Moorehead also declined to discuss it further with the press.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., has joined Campbell in preserving the streamlining provision against amendments to oust it offered by Sens. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii. The bill also has backers in Indian country, including at last count the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, of which the Navajo Nation and White Mountain Apache, both opposed to the streamlining provision, are both members.

"What we're hearing from the Republican side in the Senate is that Congressmen Campbell and Domenici want this bill," said Jeff Tomhave, policy director in the Navajos' Washington office.

Moorehead expects S. 14 to pass the Senate floor vote July 28 and head for a conference committee, which would iron out differences on the bill between the House and Senate.

Shirley was available to members the of media in the Washington area July 17 and hopes to keep the discussion open, according to Tomhave.