Skip to main content

Dalton Walker
Indian Country Today

President Joe Biden’s impact is being felt in Indian Country, and his administration appears to be listening as well.

A Biden-issued 60-day suspension of new drilling permits for federal lands and water was lauded by many in Indian Country who support environmentally friendly policy. But at least one tribe that depends on oil production immediately asked for an exemption.

Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation issued a strongly worded letter dated Jan. 21 to Scott de la Vega, acting Interior secretary, to amend the order to allow drilling permits and approvals on Native land.

On Monday, the tribe said the Biden administration responded to its letter and issued clarification that the tribe was indeed exempt.

The Ute Indian Tribe produces 45,000 barrels of crude oil per day and about 900 million cubic feet per day of natural gas, according to a Reuters report.

Ute Indian Tribe Seal

“A delay in energy permitting in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic would have been devastating to our economy and the health and safety of our tribal members,” Ute Indian Tribe Business Committee Chairman Luke Duncan said in a statement. “We appreciate the willingness of the Biden administration to listen to our concerns and take quick action to resolve this issue in fulfilling their solemn trust responsibility to this country’s first peoples: Native American tribes.”

The leader of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, known for its production of oil and gas, didn’t say whether the MHA Nation also would seek an exemption. Chairman Mark Fox was quoted by Reuters saying tribal leaders would “do what is necessary to protect the treaty rights and trust interests of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation.”

Fox posted the same quote on his Facebook page Monday.

Mark N. Fox, Chairman of Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation

It wasn’t immediately clear if any other tribes had requested or been granted an exemption. An Interior Department spokesperson declined to comment on the record.

The move comes as Biden is set to announce a wide-ranging moratorium this week on new oil and gas leasing on U.S. lands to address climate change, according to The Associated Press.

On his first day in office, Biden signed a series of executive orders that underscored his different approach — rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, revoking approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada, placing a temporary moratorium on all federal activities related to oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and telling agencies to immediately review dozens of Donald Trump-era rules on science, the environment and public health.

President Joe Biden signs his first executive order in the Oval Office of the White House on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

(Related: Joe Biden halts drilling in Arctic refuge)

Biden’s campaign pledged to halt new drilling on federal lands and end the leasing of publicly owned energy reserves. The moratorium is intended to allow time for officials to review the impact of oil and gas drilling on the environment and climate.

Oil industry groups slammed the move, saying Biden had already eliminated thousands of oil and gas jobs by killing the pipeline.

(Related: Keystone XL decision delights tribes, dismays Canada)

A 60-day suspension order at the Interior Department did not limit existing oil and gas operations under valid leases, meaning activity would not come to a sudden halt on the millions of acres of lands in the West and offshore in the Gulf of Mexico where much drilling is concentrated. The moratorium also is unlikely to affect existing leases. Its effect could be further blunted by companies that stockpiled enough drilling permits in Trump’s final months to allow them to keep pumping oil and gas for years.

The pause in drilling is limited to federal lands and does not affect drilling on private lands, which is largely regulated by states.

Oil and gas extracted from public lands and waters account for about a quarter of annual U.S. production. Extracting and burning those fuels generates the equivalent of almost 550 million tons of greenhouse gases annually, the U.S. Geological Survey said in a 2018 study.

Rep. Deb Haaland, Biden’s choice to lead the Interior, is expected to have her confirmation hearing in February. If confirmed, Haaland, Laguna and Jemez Pueblo, would be the first Native to lead the agency that oversees relations with more than 570 federally recognized tribes.

Rep. Deb Haaland, Laguna and Jemez Pueblos, is poised to be selected by President-elect Joe Biden to lead the Department of Interior. (Photo by Haaland for Congress)

The Biden administration has pledged to spend billions to assist in the transition away from fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal, and Biden has said creating thousands of clean-energy jobs is a top priority.

ICT Phone Logo

Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter: @daltonwalker Walker is based in Phoenix and enjoys Arizona winters.

Indian Country Today is a nonprofit news organization. Will you support our work? All of our content is free. There are no subscriptions or costs. And we have hired more Native journalists in the past year than any news organization ─ and with your help we will continue to grow and create career paths for our people. Support Indian Country Today for as little as $10.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.