Energy concerns up front as Obama seeks closer relationship with tribes

Posted: Aug 24, 2011

Written by

EMILY YEHLE, Greenwire
Wind turbine

The Rosebud Sioux are proud of the Owl Feather War Bonnet Wind Farm, a 30-megawatt project that sits on the rolling hills that the tribe has called home for centuries.

The South Dakota farm represents the tribe's opportunity to escape a high unemployment rate by tapping into the country's renewable energy needs. But a slew of obstacles has stalled the shovel-ready project, beginning with the 18 months it took the Bureau of Indian Affairs to approve the leasing agreement back in 2008.

Ken Haukaas believes that delay handicapped the project, forcing the tribe to search for a willing customer during a recession rather than in the brighter economic landscape of 2006.

"It seems to me, out in the business world, this doesn't happen," said Haukaas, the economic development adviser to the Rosebud Sioux tribal chairman. "If the BIA would have just got it done, I think the [power purchasing agreement] would have been signed."

Today, the Obama administration is hoping to eliminate such bureaucratic impediments through better consultations with tribes on domestic policies. In 2009, President Obama directed agencies to develop consultation policies; almost two years later, tribal officials say they have unprecedented access to top political leaders.

Jacqueline Johnson, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, said agencies that have historically ignored tribal considerations have responded with better consultation policies.

She pointed to the Department of Justice, which worked with tribal officials to form the Tribal Law and Order Act. The legislation, which strengthens tribal enforcement to better protect American Indian women from sexual crimes, became law last year.

"The agencies took notice and they started thinking about policies that affected Indian Country," Johnson said. "We saw agencies like the IRS and the Department of Education step up in ways they have not in the past."

No agency affects tribal life more than the Interior Department, which houses the BIA. Yet Interior has never had an overarching consultation policy. That will change in September, when officials plan to release the final version of a new policy that will become the framework for individual policies in its nine bureaus and offices.

BIA Deputy Assistant Secretary Jodi Gillette said the department worked "in lockstep" with tribal leaders to develop a policy that will become a shared message.

"That policy would look completely different if we didn't take tribal leaders seriously," she said. "We do not want tribal consultations to be 'OK, we checked that box.'"

The draft policy includes provisions that require employee training on American Indian governments, proper notification for upcoming decisions that could affect tribes and an annual reporting requirement on the results of consultations. It also lays out what a consultation should look like, where tribes are "considered as appropriate collaborative partners."

'It's not us against them'

But changing decades of the bureaucratic cold shoulder takes time, and some questioned whether the Obama administration could close the gap between tribal expectations and government red tape.

"This turnaround in respecting the tribal government's jurisdiction and respecting tribal historical and spiritual resources is such a break from the history of the United States," said David Lester, who heads the Council of Energy Resource Tribes. "It's been difficult for the bureaucracy to essentially swallow."

He pointed to the construction of the Ruby natural gas pipeline, which spans 368 miles of federal land through Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and Oregon. El Paso Corp. engaged in dozens of face-to-face meetings with 30 affected tribes to ensure the preservation of cultural sites such as burial grounds and shrines.

But tribes were less than satisfied with Interior's Bureau of Land Management, he said.

"They did check all the boxes, went through the procedures," Lester said. "But the tribes were very dissatisfied that agencies did not sit down with each of the tribes and talk face-to-face, government-to-government."

Johnson agreed that the government bureaucracy can be confusing, and interagency collaboration is important. The Office of Management and Budget should also ensure that agencies are actually considering tribal comments, she said.

"I think there's still work that needs to be done on coordination, both on the government side and the tribal side," she said.

Gillette said BIA's goal was to ensure both formal and informal communication. Public hearings, coffee dates, written proposals -- all should be part of agency's toolbox, she said. Some of it is also compromise; Gillette has instituted a 30-day notice period for consultations, which she acknowledged is sometimes considered too short for tribes and too long for agencies.

"It's not us against them," Gillette said. "It's trying to get to a solution, and you can't get there if everything is formal or everything is informal."

Agencies said to resist change

The results of such discussions -- particularly when it comes to energy policy -- are unclear. The Owl Feather War Bonnet farm still sits unused, despite the presence of an Air Force base nearby that the tribe had hoped would buy its energy.

Haukaas cited the requirement that all government agencies purchase a certain percentage of renewable energy. Tribes, he said, should be integrated into that policy, encouraging federal agencies to support their efforts to build a new energy economy.

"I think tribes should have priority within the federal government. If they're going to buy renewable energy from anybody, anywhere, they should buy from tribes first," he said. "It just seems to be just a real disconnect between what Obama says and what the department's doing."

Lester agreed. Agencies have the most success when they hire an official who makes consultations a priority, he said. Otherwise, it is a struggle to get federal officials and tribal leaders on the same page.

"I guess if we were to assess the administration's intentions, we'd give them an A. But if we'd assess the agencies, we'd have to give them a D to D-minus," he said. "The institutional cultures within the agencies make it very difficult to make substantive changes in the amount of time the administration has been in office."

Gillette, however, said the administration is building the foundation for a long-lasting consultation policy.

"If there's one thing I've learned working in the federal government, we do have to be patient," she said. "You can make changes fast ... but are they lasting? Probably not. If you change the law or change regulations, you make meaningful changes to the structure. That is more lasting."


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