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Leaders elevate energy potential over gaming

TULSA, Okla. – The key to prosperity for Indian tribes is the development of conventional and renewable energy resources, according to a Native leader who also thinks “Indian energy will be bigger than gaming.”

Jim Gray, principal chief of the Osage Nation and chairman of the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, made the observations as he announced CERT’s annual conference, titled “Indian Energy Solutions: America’s Energy Future Echoes Indian Energy Vision,” hosted by the Osage Nation Nov. 3 – 5 at the Tulsa Marriott Southern Hills.

The annual conference brings tribal leaders, industry experts and government representatives together “to explore and understand current trends in energy development and how they may address the needs of tribal communities,” according to conference planners.

“It is also an opportunity to discuss how tribes, industry and government can work together on finding solutions to the broader energy need in the United States.”

The 2009 American Spirit Award will be presented to the Southern Ute Indian Tribe of Ignacio, Colo. for its commitment to working with tribes and tribal communities. The tribe, along with the Ute Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, Utah, and the Osage Nation, has been commended by CERT for developing energy resources and achieving self-determination.

“Prudently developing and producing the conventional oil and gas resources on Indian lands by the Indian tribes themselves is one of the keys to reducing dependence on imports and greatly enhancing the energy security and prosperity for all Americans,” Gray said.

But as rewarding as conventional energy development may remain, there is even greater potential from the country’s emerging green energy economy, he said, noting that tribal lands contain an estimated 40 percent of renewable energy resources. Vast potential for wind and solar energy exists on reservations, including those on the Great Plains and in the Southwest.

Although the U.S. is traveling an energy path “whose goals resonate with our values, unless tribes bring their vast energy holdings into production under tribal ownership, they will not be fully successful,” said A. David Lester, executive director of Denver-based CERT.

Tribes must become “agile, resilient and adaptive,” because in the transition to a green energy economy rural America may experience “price and supply volatility and poor services, even as the grid is enlarged for the coming green energy wave,” he said.

In keeping with the need for readiness to meet such changes, the tribal leaders of the 53-member CERT have long had the goal of “developing their human resources to match the potential of their natural energy resources.”

Tribes have not been able to develop viable economies when all they have done is lease their resources, he said, but “where people are free and empowered they back incentives that maximize their benefits – it’s human nature. Tribes have to own the means of production.”

Mobilizing a trained and educated workforce will be a priority topic at the conference, because “Indian tribal work forces in the past have been overlooked as unemployment has underscored the underutilization of Indian workers in the American economy,” Lester said.

New green jobs will have to be performed “when the American workforce, especially the ones trained and skilled in working in the electricity industry, is growing smaller as the workers of the baby boom generation are retiring,” and Indian human resources will be a key asset, he said.

Other topics at the conference will include analyzing and reforming federal policy, anticipating various future scenarios, assuring reliable and affordable tribal electrical service, extracting production from spent oil fields, and working with the new Department of the Interior Office of Indian Energy and Economic Development.

“You cannot get Indians together in a national conference without talking about federal policy reforms, and the case for reform of federal policies has never been more compelling,” Lester said.

He said there are signs that federal policymakers understand reform is necessary. “Only this year has the Treasury moved to broaden tribal tax exempt bonds to include economic development and housing. Only this year has funding for correcting the faulty physical plant of buildings, houses and public facilities been made directly available to tribes.

“Only recently has the Interior Department acknowledged through its programs of assistance that energy development on Indian lands represents huge opportunities for job creation and general economic growth and development.”

On the tribal government level, leaders must encourage economic development on one hand and provide taxation for necessary services on the other, he said.

Modern tribal government is finding innovative ways “to raise the money needed to provide essential governmental services to a population that has great unmet need, and that is growing at a near world-class rate of three percent a year, doubling every 35 years.”

In addition to the annual Spirit Award, the Mary G. Ross Award will be presented to John E. Echohawk, executive director of the Native American Rights Fund, for his contribution as an indigenous leader.

Tulsa’s Gilcrease Museum will be the site of the annual dinner, which has provided education assistance to more than 1,000 Native youth.