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Some Indian country energy programs are coming together

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DENVER – A unified policy on renewable energy, climate change and treasured landscapes protection will be crafted in and for Indian country, a federal official said.

The three issues are interrelated, said Del Laverdure, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs in charge of energy development and a member of the Crow (Apsaalooke) Nation.

President Barack Obama and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar are fully committed to making energy development in Indian country come to fruition, he told attendees at the outset Nov. 16 of the Department of Energy’s Tribal Energy Program five-day 2009 program review.

Transmission grids and financial support will be important in using renewable energy to produce electricity and to serve communities, he said, noting that production tax credits are not available to tribes as nontaxable entities and that “will be an impediment.”

“Native leaders are starting to look at new things in energy development.”

-Ernest House Sr., chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Towaoc, Colo.

An assessment of what actually exists in Indian country will be critical, he said, not merely a wind resource but “what class of wind” and control over which specific rights-of-way. Detailed surveys performed by the Bureau of Land Management may be necessary to get specifics, particularly in checkerboard areas where tribal, private and public lands are interspersed.

Tribal nations’ development of renewable energy will be helped if Interior can become a “one-stop shop,” cutting red tape, offering technical assistance, interagency collaboration and other kinds of support in order to be relevant, quicker and more efficient, he said.

In terms of climate change, Native nations “have already experienced it all,” he said, and the administration “wants tribes to have a seat at the table” in broader policy for the upcoming U.N. climate change conference in Copenhagen. In the near term, the goal will be to reduce the carbon footprint.

Protecting sacred sites, a part of the treasured landscapes initiative, was a concern of spiritual elders with whom Laverdure met recently, he said, noting they “expressed alarm” at current preservation practices. Land consolidation is “absolutely critical,” he said, and a potential bison initiative is also part of the landscapes protection issue.

Ernest House Sr., chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Towaoc, Colo., said in opening remarks of the program review conference that “Native leaders are starting to look at new things in energy development,” noting as an example a small hydro plant in the Four Corners area where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah adjoin.

In order to “generate some dollars for our tribes” leaders will “see what direction we need to go with what we have,” he said.

Lizana Pierce, project manager for the Department of Energy’s Tribal Energy Program, said program grants nationwide promote tribal energy sufficiency, economic development and government-to-government relations, and also empower tribal leaders and tribal priorities, potentially impacting quality of life.

Of 93 projects from 2000 to 2008 with $16.5 million in Department of Energy funding, most are in early phases, while $10 million allocated in the 2010 budget will go to 36 projects nationwide selected last year, she said.

Among TEP projects she cited were a Citizen Band Potawatomi geothermal project to heat and cool homes and a hotel casino; an Alaskan Native solar project above the Arctic Circle; a Tulalip Tribes of Washington method of reducing stream pollution from dairy operations and creating electricity; an Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians 1.1 megawatt solar electric system, and a Ramona Band of Cahuilla Indians off-grid renewable energy plant for the tribe’s eco-tourism business.

Thomas Sacco, TEP director, Washington, D.C. said the program is “totally separate” from Energy Efficiency Block Grants that are part of the administration’s stimulus package, and those grants have taxed TEP resources, delaying some planned projects.

More than 30 tribes and tribal organizations attended the TEP program review conference, where topics included green jobs, hydropower, wood energy, wind energy, thermal stoves, building efficiency, geothermal energy, and weatherization, among others.