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Debate on Indian energy centers on trust

Two key tribal leaders are calling on Indian Country to work together on energy legislation after debate in the Senate turned along party lines on Wednesday.

National Congress of American Indians President Tex Hall and Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. want tribes to develop a bill everyone can agree on, Hall said. Otherwise, the issue will remain mired in partisan politics, he warned.

"We want to make sure that the tribes are crafting this legislation," he said in an interview. "It's our land, it's our resources."

At issue is the Indian title of the comprehensive energy policy bill. Some tribes, including the Navajo Nation, object to provisions that limit the Department of Interior's role in development projects, fearing it will weaken the federal government's trust obligations.

Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) introduced an amendment to strip the bill of the contested portions. "The underlying bill," Bingaman said on the floor yesterday, "has in it real clear language that essentially lets the Secretary of Interior off the hook. It eliminates responsibilities the Secretary would otherwise have."

"Should the United States' trust responsibility for Indian lands and resources be waived?" asked Inouye. "I am not aware of any tribal government that supports an unlimited waiver of the United States' trust responsibility."

But Republicans argued against the measure and said it would defeat the bill's main purpose: to reduce bureaucratic hurdles and speed up development of Indian lands, where it is estimated that at least 10 percent of the nation's untapped energy resources lie.

"If you want to keep American Indians on their knees, unable to provide jobs for their families and facing a dead-end future," charged Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), "then vote for the Bingaman amendment."

After nearly an hour of debate, the measure was defeated by a near party-line 52 to 47 vote. All 51 Republicans, plus one Democrat, voted to table the Bingaman amendment, which drew the support of 47 Democrats. One Democrat, John Kerrey of Massachusetts, was not present.

The outcome disappointed Hall, who said it underscored the need for all sides in the debate to come together. "We don't want it to be a partisan issue," he said. "We want it to be a bipartisan matter."

Campbell said he plans to introduce another amendment that he hopes will resolve some of the lingering doubts. He suggested language could be drafted to strengthen the government's trust responsibilities while still allowing increased development.

Environmental groups and several state attorneys general of both parties have also raised objections to the Indian title of S.14. They believe the elimination of Interior's involvement will skirt environmental laws and allow development without considering the impacts on the public.

The Council of Energy Resource Tribes, the Chickasaw Nation, five Pueblo tribes in New Mexico and the United South and Eastern Tribes have said they support the bill. But there is disagreement on a provision to allow public comment on tribal energy projects.

In addition to the Navajo Nation, the Jicarilla Apache Nation of New Mexico is also concerned about the impact on the federal-tribal trust relationship.

Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is managing debate on the bill, which began last Monday. He has said he wants to wrap up work within the coming week.

Roll Call:
Motion To Table Bingaman Amendment (June 11, 2003)

Energy Legislation Documents:
S.14 [with links to amendments] | Summary of Indian Energy Title III | Indian Energy Title III | Bush Administration Statement

Relevant Links:
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee - http://energy.senate.gov
National Congress of American Indians - http://www.ncai.org
Navajo Nation - http://www.navajo.org
Council of Energy Resource Tribes - http://www.certredearth.com

Related Stories:
Navajo Nation opposes energy bill (6/6)
Indian energy title adopted without changes (04/30)
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)
High court ruling makes 'passive' trustee of U.S. (3/5)

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