WASHINGTON – Tribal leaders urged lawmakers Friday to unravel the red tape that has delayed energy development on American Indian land.
“We want development of our natural resources. Nevertheless, we’ve been held back for many reasons,” Navajo Nation president Ben Shelly told the House natural resource panel’s Indian affairs subcommittee. “I believe that leaders want to help, but that message seems to get lost in the federal government.”
Tribal lands contain an estimated 10 percent of the nation’s renewable and nonrenewable energy resources, but more than 15 million acres of Indian land with such resources have not been developed, said Rep. Don Young, the Alaska Republican who chairs the subcommittee.
Young and tribal leaders said burdensome federal laws and regulations are to blame. Because the federal government holds tribal lands in trust, drilling or building renewable energy plants on reservations requires federal approval.
Any energy project on federal land must be approved by agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and the Environmental Protection Agency. But on tribal lands, developers must also get the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ stamp of approval.
Getting a BIA permit to drill or build is slow because its office is understaffed and often relies on outdated mineral ownership records, said Scott Russell, secretary of Montana’s Crow Tribe.
Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota, said the Interior Department’s process for approving oil and gas exploration involves 49 steps and can take up to two years. Permitting on non-reservation land in North Dakota requires just four steps and takes about a week and a half, Hall said.
The Bureau of Land Management’s permitting fees are also higher on reservations than on other state-owned lands, according to the Natural Resources Committee staff. In Montana, developers must pay $6,500 to apply for a permit on a reservation, compared to about $100 on other state lands, staffers said.
Lawmakers and tribal leaders said energy development is especially crucial on reservations, whose residents need the jobs, infrastructure and tax revenue that would come from energy projects. Among the Navajo in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, 48 percent are unemployed, 40 percent live below the federal poverty line, and about one-third lack electricity and water in their homes, Shelly said. Unemployment rates in some plains tribes have reached 80 percent.
Tribal leaders said reducing permit fees and streamlining federal authority would help jump-start energy development. One proposal was to create a central office on reservations that would coordinate among federal agencies. Extending tax credits for renewable energy projects would also help, they said.
Young said there is “no logic” in the current process. He said the committee would write a bill to give American Indians more independence in developing renewable and nonrenewable resources. This would involve changing some of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ policies, he said.
“They’ve become a stagnated agency over the years, and they’re not letting Indian nations progress,” he told tribal leaders. “If they can’t do the job, we need to write legislation so you people can get on your feet.”
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