Native American tribes have vast energy resources, but face barriers developing them

Photo Courtesy of NM Political Report

Hannah Grover

While Indigenous nations across the United States have vast energy resources, it can be hard for them to develop that potential.

Tribal representatives spoke to the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indian and Insular Affairs on Thursday about the challenges they face in developing energy resources.

Sub-committee chairwoman U.S. Rep. Harriet Hageman, R-Wyoming, said 30 percent of coal reserves west of the Mississippi River are on tribal lands. 

“These untapped resources can be a key revenue source for tribes, particularly in rural areas, and can increase the United States’ supply of energy,” she said.

While several tribes have sought to develop their energy resources, Hageman said development of energy projects on tribal lands requires “jumping through more hoops, more bureaucracy, and involves more agencies than on any other type of lands. We need to change that.”

This is an area where Hageman and U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, D-New Mexico, expressed a common sentiment.

“The federal government has a trust responsibility to promote tribal self-government and sovereignty of American Indians and Alaskan Native, including their ability to develop their economy and their natural resources,” Leger Fernández said.

While Hageman focused on fossil fuels in her remarks, Leger Fernández spoke about renewable resources such as solar and geothermal.

“Tribes want and need to be in control of their projects,” she said.

She said renewable energy development can take twice as long on tribal lands.

Bidtah Becker, chief legal counsel for the Office of the President and Vice President of the Navajo Nation, talked about running into problems when the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority was utilizing American Rescue Plan Act funding to expand access to electricity. The tribal entity has struggled to receive tree cutting permits needed to expand the infrastructure. Those permits would come through the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

In another example, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe Chairman Melvin Baker described trying to draft a supplemental environmental impact statement regarding energy development. The SUIT is located in the San Juan Basin—a region rich in natural gas—north of Aztec, New Mexico, and south of Durango, Colorado. The tribe has set up its own environmental agencies as well as a department of energy. Baker said the tribe partnered with the federal government on the supplemental environmental impact statement, only to have the federal agency remove itself.

“This has been left unresolved and the tribe does not have a clear path forward,” Baker said.

That supplemental environmental impact statement did face backlash from environmental advocacy groups.

He said it is important for Indigenous nations to control their own resources.

Nicolas Lovesee, a senior policy advisor for the Native American Finance Officers Association, said that there needs to be a focus on leveling the playing field for tribes. 

One of the issues that people kept circling back to was the Tribal Energy Resource Agreements. While these agreements are intended to promote Tribal control over the resources on their land, not a single tribe has entered into one of them since the program began in 2019. The agreements would allow the tribes to enter into leases, business agreements, and rights-of-way needed for energy resource development on their lands without having to first seek review and approval from the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. 

Baker said there is uncertainty as to what TERA entails and that tribes are hesitant to enter into such agreements because they do not know the rules.


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