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Lester: CERT and the Ruby Pipeline Project: Working together to enhance tribal sovereignty

Your article on the new pipeline that will bring cleaner-burning natural gas to the West Coast from the Rocky Mountains starting next year (“Pipeline creates tribal dissent,” Vol. 30, No. 17) contains numerous factual errors about the project and its vital importance to Indian country.

It also badly mischaracterizes the mission of the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, the nonprofit coalition of 58 U.S. Indian tribes and Canadian First Treaty Nations that for the past 35 years has helped tribes gain greater control of their own natural resources to achieve economic self-sufficiency and independence.

The nearly 700-mile pipeline, called Ruby, is currently under construction in Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and Oregon. Once completed in spring 2011, the Ruby Pipeline will strengthen the market competitiveness of natural gas produced on Native American tribal lands in the Rocky Mountain Basin – not just from the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, as the article wrongly implies, but other tribal lands (Northern Arapaho, Eastern Shoshone, Ute Mountain Ute, and the Ute Indian Tribe). Gas from these tribes is relatively underpriced due to a lack of interstate pipeline infrastructure to bring it to market. Because federal law requires interstate pipelines to provide transportation services on an open-access basis – that is, interconnect with other pipelines, much like local connectivity to long-distance telephone service – all five tribes will now be able to sell gas to new customers, including public utilities serving homes and businesses across the West.

Many other Indian tribes and nations will benefit from an environmental standpoint as natural gas replaces coal-fired power plants as mandated in California and other states. This includes tribes focused on developing their renewable energy resources for greater independence from foreign supplies, a vital mission of CERT and its membership. When the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, reliable access to affordable natural gas – made possible by projects such as Ruby – provides the essential bridge to green energy.

The company behind the Ruby Pipeline Project, El Paso Corporation, is a successful model for how private industry can work proactively with Indian tribes and nations to help them build internal capacity. In fact, El Paso has engaged in more and better outreach to tribes than any energy company with which I’ve worked in more than three decades.

Nearly two years ago, El Paso approached CERT to develop an unprecedented tribal outreach program to encourage Native Americans to work on Ruby-related construction. Your article fails to note that Ruby has since held nine tribal employment workshops in six states, attended by more than 500 Native Americans and sponsored by Tribal Employment Rights Offices along the route of the pipeline. Because most construction jobs on the project require trade-union membership – a traditional barrier to Native American employment – CERT has focused on strengthening relationships between local unions and tribal members interested in working on the project. With the help of TEROs, some of which assist tribal members with the cost of paying their union dues, Native Americans are successfully navigating the union hiring process, many for the first time.

Your article also doesn’t mention that El Paso has insisted from the inception of the project that tribal monitors be used along the Ruby Pipeline route to protect cultural resources. El Paso’s path-breaking stance on this crucial issue was informed in part by a special two-day working session on cultural resource protection issues that CERT convened in Reno more than a year ago with more than 70 tribal council chairmen and other senior leaders from affected tribes.

As a direct result of this tribal outreach, the Ruby Pipeline Project currently has the most extensive Native American cultural resources protection plan ever undertaken outside Indian trust land. To date, more than 40 tribal monitors, all from affected tribes, are working on construction. El Paso’s highly experienced full-time Native American Tribal Liaison Les Anderson – a member of the Modoc Tribe and veteran cultural resource protection specialist from previous energy projects – oversees Ruby’s tribal monitoring program, both in the field and from the project’s Native American Liaison office at the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. Separately, the Klamath Tribes are providing a separate monitoring team of 22 tribal members directly to the project under contract to Ruby.

These tribal monitors, who serve as eyes and ears from their respective tribal governments, are in addition to Native American cultural resource technicians who offer advice on cultural resources protection issues directly to Ruby and its contractors. El Paso is going farther than any U.S. energy company to make sure that the interests of Indian tribes and nations are respected during the construction process.

Your article sharply criticizes the federal government, especially the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, for the manner in which it has conducted government-to-government consultation with Indian tribes and nations. Several CERT member tribes were among the first to call on the federal government to honor its trust responsibility by consulting more closely with affected tribal governments on this and other projects.

It is important to point out, however, that in response to tribes’ concerns as expressed in your article, the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation last summer took the unprecedented step of directing FERC to hold additional public hearings with Indian tribes and nations in each of the four states with construction activity to strengthen the government-to-government consultation process. In response, FERC has held more than double the number of required meetings with tribes, including in adjacent states not required by ACHP, and continues to engage in direct, on-reservation follow-up meetings per tribal request.

FERC and other federal agencies must do more to respect Indian tribes through meaningful government-to-government consultation. In the meantime, Indian Country Today would do well to recognize – as CERT and its member tribes have already done – that the pro-tribal sovereignty actions of companies such as El Paso, through its Ruby Pipeline Project, are well worth encouraging.

A. David Lester has served as the executive director of the Council of Energy Resource Tribes since 1983.