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No lightning-fast tribal energy progress

WASHINGTON – Entering 2009, energy development for Indian country, including green jobs and renewable efforts, seemed like they were bound to make headway. But, as national political attention remained caught up in health care reform, less movement was made in the area than anticipated by some observers.

Faced with the hold-up, several tribal leaders told Congress in October that it must encourage the creation and growth of energy initiatives on tribal lands.

“American Indian energy resources hold enormous potential to create tens of thousands of good-paying jobs, generate substantial revenue for the tribal owners, and aid in the development of tribal economies,” testified Marcus Levings, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota, at an Oct. 22 hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

“An often-overlooked aspect of Indian energy is that it helps satisfy the American economy’s need for a reliable energy

supply.”

Levings is also a leader with the Council of Energy Resource Tribes.

“There is tremendous potential for renewable energy development in Indian country,” added James Roan Grey, the Osage chairman of the Indian Country Renewable Energy Consortium.

Many tribal leaders have mentioned financial disincentives under current federal policy as a chief barrier to tribal energy growth. A lack of tax benefits are one such barrier.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., made it clear through the course of the hearing that he thinks tribal energy development could be the wave of the future, if not for too many cumbersome federal regulations.

Dorgan also decried what he called a “49-step” process for energy development on reservations and said he would ask Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to put one person in charge of Indian energy.

Several committee members, including Republican Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, voiced support for better tribal energy policy.

To questions surrounding why many tribes haven’t followed the Tribal Energy Resource Agreements authorized by the Energy Policy Act of 2005, Grey and others testified that many tribes don’t want to enter into TERAs mainly due to questions surrounding federal government trust liability.

Senate staffers predicted at a Sept. 30 meeting on Capitol Hill that tribal energy legislation would likely be introduced pending other legislative matters currently capturing the attention of Congress members.

Earlier in the year, the committee released an Indian Energy and Energy Efficiency concept paper based on previous congressional testimony and other statements from tribal leaders.

In the paper, the committee identified three major barriers to Indian energy development: Outdated laws and cumbersome regulations for tribal energy development and programs; lack of tribal access to the transmission grid; and difficulty in obtaining financing and investment for energy projects.

National Congress of American Indians Executive Director Jacqueline Johnson Pata said at a November meeting of tribal leaders that is the wish of many tribal governments to become full partners in the clean energy revolution, and in efforts to address the impacts of climate change.

She said financial benefits from tribal involvement in the green energy industry could one day rival those from gaming.

“Renewable energy is one of the most significant economic development opportunities available to tribes during these difficult economic times, particularly tribes in remote areas, many of which have never experienced meaningful economic opportunities,” the NCAI leader said.

“This potential must be tapped.”

She noted that much wind and solar energy is located in reservation areas, according to government studies.