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Tribal energy problems gain attention

WASHINGTON - Although President Bush's new "National Energy Policy" has become one of the highest priorities within the administration, there has been little discussion of how tribes fit into the picture.

That may be changing as tribes voice concerns and legislation is introduced to address some problems with energy production and use on tribal lands.

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., and ranking Democrat on the House Resources Committee, introduced a bill called the "Tribal Energy Self-Sufficiency Act." It seeks to promote energy development on tribal lands, as well as provide greater access to energy, such as electricity, for those tribes in need.

"Native Americans have, by far, the highest percentage of homes without electricity," Rahall said. "Many homes on reservations have either no electricity or unreliable electricity. I find this appalling and unacceptable especially in light of the fact that at least 10 percent of the energy resources in the United States are located on Indian lands."

A report issued last year by the Department of Energy shows 14.2 percent of all American Indian homes on reservations have no access to electricity, compared to just 1.4 percent of all U.S. households. The electricity prices paid by American Indians were not only statistically different from prices paid by other Americans, but American Indians living on reservations generally pay a greater portion of their income for electricity. An average American Indian household spends 4 percent of its income on electricity, twice that of the average household. Many of the poorest households spend nearly 20 percent of their income.

Tribal governments own significant energy and water resources and have for years provided vast amounts of resources to generate electric power, yet they continue to remain the most in need. This newly proposed legislation focuses on some of the causes and proposes some solutions.

The bill contains provisions relating to production of energy resources on tribal lands, development of renewable sources of energy and access by tribes to transmission facilities largely by building on programs already in place.

Rahall says he worked to draft the legislation with the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, the Intertribal Energy Network and numerous energy and tribal experts representing more than 100 tribes. He says while it contains a great deal of input from Indian country, it does not purport to include every perspective.

"In numerous instances Indian lands are criss-crossed with electricity transmission and distribution lines, yet Indian homes on those lands remain dark," Rahall said. "In this regard, the fundamental purpose of this legislation is to provide Indian country with the tools it needs to achieve energy self-sufficiency."

The bill is co-sponsored by Don Young, R-Alaska, George Miller, D-Calif., Dale Kildee, D-Mich., Eni Faleomavaega, D-American Samoa, Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., Adam Smith, D-Wash., Mark Udall, D-Colo., Betty McCollum, D-Minn., and Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I.