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Press Release

Panel: Tribes Flourish When the Federal Government Gets Out of Their Way

Today, the House Committee on Natural Resources held an oversight hearing titled, “Tribal Prosperity and Self-Determination through Energy Development.”  Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT) and Congressman Bruce Westerman (R-AR) joined a panel of expert witnesses to discuss obstacles and potential for energy and natural resource development on tribal lands.

Indian energy resources hold significant potential for creating jobs in tribal communities, many of which are historically impoverished, but federal regulations obstruct tribes from making their own natural resources decisions. A recent U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found “missed opportunities,” “lost revenue,” and “jeopardized viability of projects” for Indian tribes.

“The issue at its core deals with human dignity, self-determination and opportunity,” Chairman Bishop said. “Unfortunately, nearly every aspect of energy development on tribal lands is influenced or controlled by the federal government, a policy stemming from old notions that Indian tribes are incapable of or unwilling to manage their resources.” 

A tribe seeking to drill an oil well on their own land must have the lease approved by the Interior Department—with no guarantee when or whether it ever will be approved, creating investor uncertainty. Witness Louis Denetsosie, President & CEO Navajo Nation Oil and Gas Company located in Window Rock, AZ and a member of the Navajo Nation, wants the Bureau of Indian Affairs out of the mineral lease approval process.

“Removing the Bureau of Indian Affairs from the mineral lease approval process will eliminate unnecessary and burdensome layers of federal regulation,” Denetsosie said.  

He mentioned the Navajo Nation has a sophisticated three-branch government that can perform thorough environmental assessments independently from the federal government, suggesting federal assessments compromise their own self-governance.

Congressman Westerman asked the panel if they "believe that forests are less healthy, and the environment is in turn less healthy and robust under federal management then it would be under a Tribal management policy?"

The Honorable Jack Ferguson, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Washington, responded: "I do…It is apparent on our border with the federal lands that are north of us- the Colville and Okanogan National Forests- that the overstocking and undermanaging has created very bad health issues and fire hazard."

The Southern Ute Indian Tribe is an example of the positive impacts of Indian energy development. Witness James M. “Mike” Olguin, Tribal Council Member Southern Ute Indian Tribe Ignacio, CO, said energy development through self-determination is key to the tribe’s economic success, though they still face many regulatory obstacles.

“The best way for the United States to uphold its trust responsibility would be to step aside,” Olguin said.

As one possible legislative solution, the panel specifically discussed H.R. 538, the Native American Energy Act (Rep. Don Young, R-AK), which passed the House on October 8, 2015. The bill expedites and streamlines the leasing and permitting of natural resources and increases opportunities for tribes and Alaska Natives to govern more aspects of development.

Denetsosie, among others, voiced support for H.R. 538, urging Congress to "spur more economic activity by lowering these barriers, including enacting legislation pending for reconciliation by the House of Representatives and the Senate."

H.R. 538, which addresses concerns Native American leaders brought to the attention of the Committee through various hearings and consultations, is also included in the House-Senate energy conference. Similar legislation (S. 209) passed the Senate in December 2015.

Click here to view full witness testimony.

Click here for information on H.R. 538.