Tribal leaders seek independence for resource development

Posted: Apr 23, 2012

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Fracking on the Blackfeet Nation rez

American Indian leaders yesterday stressed the need for energy development independence as they challenged the Bureau of Land Management's proposed hydraulic fracturing rule and showed support for a Senate bill that aims to cut federal red tape.

The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs and Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearings allowed tribal leaders to vent their frustrations before lawmakers who have heard the same basic line in previous meetings.

The message was stated bluntly by Tex Hall, chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation of the Fort Berthold Reservation. "These are our lands," he said. "These are not BLM's lands. These are not public lands."

The point of contention at the House hearing was whether BLM consulted tribes as it created its hydraulic fracturing rules.

The rule, which is under review by the White House Office of Management and Budget, would require public disclosure of chemicals. It also requires drillers to document that they maintained well integrity.

In his testimony, Tim Spisak, BLM's deputy assistant director of minerals and realty management, gave an outline of how the rule was drafted, saying Indian leaders would have been able to participate in a forum led by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in November 2010 and subsequent meetings in North Dakota, Arkansas and Colorado.

Drafts of the rule were given out at the meetings before it had been printed in the Federal Register, though they were handed out toward the end of the meetings, he said.

Tribal leaders contested this, saying that while they knew of the rule, they had few details on how it would be carried out. Furthermore, they said no one from BLM or the Interior Department consulted them about the rule and how it would affect their oil and gas production. This is contradictory, they said, to Interior's policy to include tribal governments "at all stages of federal decision-making on Indian policy."

"Tribes were not afforded an opportunity to provide input on, let alone the time to analyze, the draft rule," subcommittee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) said. "New jobs -- especially year-round, high-wage jobs available in the oil and gas industry -- can and will have a dramatic effect on reducing unemployment and poverty on Indian reservations. But if the BLM rule goes into effect, kiss these tribal jobs goodbye."

At the Fort Berthold Reservation, the MHA Nation has about 250 wells in production, most of which use hydraulic fracturing and which provide the tribes with about $182 million in oil and gas royalties. Adding another layer of federal regulation would hurt production, since companies may opt to leave to drill on cheaper lands, Hall said.

While Hall and other tribal leaders said they supported the disclosure of chemicals used during fracturing, they opposed the rule itself. If the rule goes forward, they would pursue litigation or legislation.

Hall said he would like to avoid litigation if possible, because he and his tribe consider themselves to be friends of the Obama administration. But if Congress is unable or won't step in, they may have no other option left.

"Fracking is a smaller piece of the integral problem," he said.

Support, recommendations for Senate bill

At yesterday's Senate Indian Affairs meeting, ranking member John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) pushed forward his bill, S. 1684. Senators heard from five tribal leaders, including four who had testified at the House subcommittee hearing earlier yesterday.

The bill proposes streamlining the approval process for tribal energy resource agreements, or TERAs, which no tribe has entered into since they were created in the Energy Policy Act of 2005. It also would allow tribes to enter into some oil and gas agreements without prior approval from Interior and would require the department to provide energy development assistance.

The tribal leaders said they supported the bill, echoing sentiments the committee has heard about deregulation, most recently at an oversight hearing in February (E&E Daily, Feb. 17).

"Through the intervening years, tribal leader after tribal leader has come before you to express concerns about extreme needs in Indian Country, both for improved access to energy and for economic development for their constituents," said Mike Olguin, vice chairman of the Southern Ute Indian Tribal Council. "Today, we hope that members of the committee will collectively determine that the needs of Indian Country merit passage of S. 1684."

While they showed support for the bill, leaders did offer suggestions on how to improve it. Irene Cuch, chairwoman of the Ute Tribal Business Committee, said her tribe supports the bill, but she said it was just a "good start." Her tribe offered 32 recommendations on the bill, including clarifications on sovereign authority and jurisdiction.

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