Pushing for tribal energy development

WASHINGTON – Several tribal leaders have told Congress in recent days 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.

“We also know the present reality: Actual projects have been slow to materialize. This is due to a variety of obstacles ranging from overly complex and burdensome lease approval processes to difficult transmission access and ill-fitting financial incentives.”

Grey described problems tribes have faced involving leasing, infrastructure, financing and federal programs.

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., SCIA chairman, 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 will 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.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., asked why 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.

Beyond the hearing, the committee has held several staff-led listening sessions with tribal leaders throughout the country in recent weeks.

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

The committee has previously released an Indian Energy and Energy Efficiency concept paper. The paper is 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.

Studies have found that tribal lands have some of the most abundant wind and solar energy in the nation. And relatively little has been done with it.