House Democrats are expected to oppose legislation this week that would remove regulatory burdens for energy production on Native American land that tribes say have cost them tens of millions of dollars.
The Native American Energy Act would vest more regulatory authority over tribal energy production with the tribes themselves, rather federal regulators that have recently sought more stringent regulations on oil and gas production on federal land.
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The bill passed out of the House Natural Resources Committee last month with just a single Democratic vote. Among its provisions is language that would exempt tribal land from new Interior Department regulations on hydraulic fracturing, an innovative oil and gas extraction technique commonly known as fracking.
Interior opposes the bill in part due to that language. That opposition and committee Democrats’ near-unanimous vote against it suggest that the bill will continue to face Democratic opposition when it comes to the House floor on Thursday.
Native American tribes have vocally supported the legislation, authored by Rep. Don Young (R., Alaska), which would streamline the permitting process for energy extraction projects on tribal land.
The National Congress of American Indians called the bill "an important piece of legislation that would remove many regulatory hurdles tribes face when developing their energy resources" in a September letter to lawmakers urging its approval.
The legislation seeks to address regulatory shortcomings identified in a June report from the Government Accountability Office.
"Bureau of Indian Affairs’ (BIA) management shortcomings and other factors—such as a complex regulatory framework, tribes’ limited capital and infrastructure, and varied tribal capacity—have hindered Indian energy development," that report found.
It cited congressional testimony from the head of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, who told a Senate committee last year that delays as long as eight years in BIA pipeline permitting had cost the tribe about $95 million in foregone revenue.
"We continue to face bureaucratic barriers that unnecessarily and unfairly impede our ability to carry out even basic realty transactions," the Southern Ute tribe said in a March letter.
"Overly burdensome federal involvement in the Tribe's energy development efforts undermines our sovereignty and economic prosperity," the tribe said.
The bill’s fracking provision is a particular point of contention in the wake of new Interior regulations of the practice, which under current law would include fracking on tribal land placed in trust by the federal government.
A number of tribes say that oil and gas production has produced financial benefits that have enabled them to provide much-needed public services.
"Our Nation heavily depends on our oil and gas production as the primary means of generating governmental revenue," the president of the Jicarilla Apache Nation told Congress in 2012.
The Ute Indian Tribes recently joined a lawsuit against Interior seeking to block its newly unveiled fracking regulations, saying they "are contrary to tribal interests and will cause irreversible damage to the Tribe’s economy."
A federal judge recently granted the tribe’s request, in conjunction with industry plaintiffs in the case, to temporarily block the implementation of Interior’s regulation.
The rule "is a throwback to the old paternalistic policies of the federal government that completely disregard tribal interests," it wrote. "The Tribe asserts that the tribal government is the that can best determine what is in their best interest with respect to tribal lands, not a federal agency."