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Tribal officials seek flexibility with energy resources

Leaders remind lawmakers that tribal land is not 'public land'

WASHINGTON – Tribal leaders Thursday pushed for greater input on government decisions over “fracking” and stressed the importance of eliminating red tape from energy resources programs on Indian lands.

In testimony at two congressional hearings, representatives of tribes from across the country, including a Navajo official, reminded Senate and House lawmakers that tribal land is not “public land.”

“We take the protection of resources on our nation very seriously,” said Wilson Groen, president and CEO of the Navajo Nation Oil and Gas Co.

Groen called for greater consultation with the Bureau of Land Management over its recently proposed regulation of hydraulic fracturing. “Fracking,” which boosts production by cracking gas-bearing rocks, has come under fire recently for its reported environmental impact.

Other tribal leaders echoed Groen’s concerns about being heard on the regulation of fracking, which is practiced on some tribal lands.

“Tribal consultation requirements are not just a formality,” said Tex Hall, chairman of the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation.

“Since BLM has not fulfilled the department’s and the administration’s requirements for consultation with Indian tribes, BLM must withdraw the draft hydraulic fracturing regulations,” he said in a prepared statement. “Or … exclude the application of these regulations to any permits on Indian lands until proper and meaningful consultation with tribes can occur.”

Hall said the Interior Department needs to make sure the bureau is consulting with the tribes.

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A bureau official conceded that there are things his agency could do better. But he told a House Natural Resources subcommittee that the agency takes its “trust responsibility” with tribes seriously and wants to work with them.

“I think we can say that BLM is learning how to do this consultation,” said Tim Spisak, the bureau’s deputy assistant director for minerals and realty management.

He reiterated the Obama administration’s goals of clean domestic energy, pointing to newer technologies and the environmental concerns of fracking, such as water contamination.

Irene Cuch, chairwoman of the Ute Tribal Business Committee, said the Ute share concerns about the impact of fracking, but that they still want a more direct say on the issue.

But Hall, Groen and others minimized environmental concerns, calling fracking a “necessity” and an economic boon to reservations.

Tribes got a sympathetic ear from House lawmakers, who peppered Spisak with questions.

“We still treat these lands as ours and that’s wrong,” said Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska. “I’m not very fond of … letting BLM manage Indian lands.”

Young said the bureau is not giving tribes the full respect of a sovereign nation.

In a later Senate hearing before the Indian Affairs Committee, tribal leaders praised a bill from Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., that would change the Indian Tribal Energy and Self-Determination Act to make energy project rules easier and more predictable for tribes.

The bill would approve tribal projects that are not acted on by the Interior Department within 270 days, would allow nontribal investors in Indian energy projects and eliminate some obstacles to hydroelectric project approval.

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“For far too long, bureaucratic red tape has prevented the pursuit of tribal economic development opportunities, especially energy development opportunities,” Barrasso said.

While they applauded the bill, tribal witnesses said it needs to go further.

Hall pointed to tax-code challenges and Cuch cited as many as 32 areas of the law that the bill could address to put tribes “on the same playing field.” This includes eliminating fees BLM charges for oil and gas work on tribal lands.

Cuch said in her testimony that the bill is a good start but, “More is necessary.”

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Victoria Pelham/Cronkite News Service

Navajo Nation Oil and Gas Co. CEO Wilson Groen said federal regulations on “fracking” would result in even more red tape delaying tribal projects.