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U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell: Unlocking the potential of Indian tribal energy

Almost one year ago, in May, 2001, President Bush unveiled his National Energy Policy, an ambitious plan to reduce the United States' dependence on foreign sources of energy by increasing domestic energy production and encouraging greater levels of energy conservation.

At that time our overarching concern was the soaring cost of energy, the economic impacts of those costs and our nation's increasing reliance on foreign energy. Then, as now, nearly 60 percent of the energy we consume is imported from other countries ? countries that are either unstable, openly hostile to the United States or both.

The abundance of energy in the 1990s lulled us into complacency and a naive assumption that we would have cheap, reliable energy for years to come.

What would happen if these sources of energy were suddenly reduced or cut off altogether ? military action? Maybe. Economic collapse? Probably. Misery for Americans? Assuredly.

Dependence on foreign energy is a dangerous game: to be dependent on foreign suppliers is to be at their mercy. Take for instance the 1973 and 1979 "energy crises" brought on by decisions of the international oil cartel, OPEC, to cut production, resulting in higher energy prices that did severe and lasting damage to the U.S. and all industrial economies.

We are now importing 1.2 million barrels per day from Iraq ? one-half of their total production ? and the government of Saddam Hussein is using the money to re-arm.

The whims of foreign suppliers result not only in the inconveniences of long lines at the gas station. High energy prices stifle economic growth and cause layoffs, unemployment and misery to Americans ? but most of all to the poorest of Americans.

High energy prices hit the poorest Americans the hardest. Imagine the plight of a single, working Indian mom who has worked hard and saved and is buying her own home, but commutes to work and to day care. High energy prices may not only threaten her job, but also mean less money for shoes, clothes and food for her family.

Think of the young Indian entrepreneur ? perhaps the owner of a small construction company ? who is forced to lay off other Indian workers because high energy prices are resulting in fewer homes being built and he cannot make his payroll.

These are real impacts affecting real people and we must develop real solutions to the energy problems we all face.

The time to restore our national energy security is at hand and Indian tribes can and should play a vital role in the effort. For too long, abundant Indian energy resources have been overlooked and undervalued. The Department of Interior estimates that only 25 percent of Indian oil reserves and less than 20 percent of Indian gas reserves have been developed.

Enlisting Indian tribes in the national energy effort will simultaneously help jump-start moribund Indian economies.

From Alaska to the Plains to the Southwest, Indian energy represents a terrific opportunity both for the tribes and for our nation.

Some tribes are already energy producers and are doing so in an environmentally sensitive way.

Take the Southern Ute Tribe of Colorado; one of the premier natural gas producers in the United States. The Southern Utes have one of the most advanced economies in the Four Corners region and generate millions of dollars of income for the benefit of tribal members. The tribe is so successful, in fact, that the bonds they issue in the capital markets are rated "Triple A" by the Fitch and Moody's bond rating services.

The energy bill now pending in the Senate contains solid provisions related to Indian energy including the establishment of an Office of Indian Policy and Programs within the Department of Energy. The Office would make grants and loans to support tribal energy development activities.

More needs to be done and I believe that we can unleash the potential of Indian energy in other ways. I am hopeful that the Senate will accept an amendment to the bill that would provide increased flexibility for tribes to implement their own plans for energy development ? both renewable and non-renewable resources.

I do not believe that all wisdom rests in Washington, D.C. and do not believe that Uncle Sam is equipped to play the role of picking winners and losers when it comes to energy development. The decision of whether to exploit wind energy, natural gas or oil reserves is best left to the tribe itself.

There are, however, many ways the Federal government can encourage and facilitate Indian energy development:

o Get the Federal government out of the way ? Indians, not Federal bureaucrats and not the environmental community, should make the decisions affecting Indian resources and Indian lives;

o First identify, and then eliminate, barriers to oil, gas and mineral development on Indian lands;

o Expedite trust land acquisitions for energy development;

o Create a level playing field and step back onerous environmental regulations that apply to Indian tribal energy development, but not to similar private sector development that occurs right next to Indian reservations; and

o Provide financial help by launching a "Joint Energy Development Feasibility Fund" to provide loans to tribes and grants to tribal consortia for purposes of energy development.

These common-sense proposals, in conjunction with the provisions that are already in the pending energy bill, will help unleash the potential of Indian energy for the benefit of tribes and tribal members, as well as for our nation's energy and economic security.