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Indian energy title adopted without changes

A Senate panel approved a broad Indian energy package on Tuesday over concerns that it could undermine the federal government's trust responsibilities.

On a straight party-line vote, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee killed an amendment that would have stripped the bill of its most controversial provision. Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), the panel's ranking member, said some tribes and environmental opposed a section that limits federal review of energy projects.

"There's an abdication of federal trust responsibility embedded in this provision and we need to rethink how we structure it," he said.

But Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), the committee chairman, spoke against the proposal and said it would defeat the goals of tribal self-determination. "Sen. Bingaman's amendment would essentially gut this bill in terms of giving the Indian people of this country an opportunity to proceed to develop their energy resources for the first time in history," he argued.

Other Democrat members of the panel voiced objections on grounds that the section waives the federal National Environmental Policy Act. Their 11 votes, however, weren't enough to overcome the 12-member Republican majority and the committee adopted the chairman's mark of the Indian Energy Title.

"With tribes suffering from 50 to 70 percent unemployment," said Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, "I think this section not only helps alleviate some of the job losses on Indian reservations but the nation at large at getting us less dependent on foreign energy."

The Indian energy package was developed in conjunction with Campbell's committee. At a hearing last month, tribal representatives said they were worried that it absolves the Department of Interior of its trust obligations and prevents them from recovering damages for breach of trust.

Their testimony came in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision in U.S. v. Navajo Nation, which said the federal government wasn't liable for an coal development lease the tribe said wasn't in its best interests.

The Navajo Nation, the largest tribe in the nation, and the Jicarilla Apache Nation of New Mexico, another resource-rich tribe, submitted letters in opposition to the provision Bingaman tried to strip. But the Council of Energy Resource Tribes (CERT), which represents more than 50 tribes with significant trust assets, offered its support. The Navajo and Apache tribes belong to the organization.

The provision in question is aimed at eliminating bureaucratic hurdles to tribal development. It allows tribes, on a voluntary basis, to submit a tribal energy resource plan to the Department of Interior. The secretary has 180 days to approve or deny it.

After that, the tribe can undertake projects, enter into leases and agreements and grant rights-of-way pursuant to the resource plan without additional federal review. In light of the concerns about the Supreme Court ruling, Campbell's committee inserted language that would appear to preserve the secretary's trust responsibilities.

Domenici was optimistic yesterday that the full bill, including the Indian title, will make it to the Senate floor. Last year, national energy policy legislation failed to make it out of joint House-Senate conference committee.

"This will not be an extremely limited authority," Domenici said of the Indian section. "It will be a total panorama of energy potential projects."

The Department of Energy estimates that 10 percent of the nation's untapped energy resources are on Indian land. Many tribes have eagerly tapped their coal, coalbed methane, oil, natural gas and other assets.

Relevant Documents:
Summary of Indian Energy Title III | Indian Energy Title III | Amendment 34

Relevant Links:
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee - http://energy.senate.gov
Council of Energy Resource Tribes - http://www.certredearth.com

Related Stories:
Some tribes concerned about Indian energy bill (4/29)
Energy bill will streamline Indian development (04/15)
Tribal energy bill limits environmental review (03/24)
Tribes weigh effects of energy legislation on trust (03/20)
Navajo Nation tussles with new trust 'philosophy' (03/20)
Interior opposes oversight in energy bill (03/20)

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