A new wind turbine at the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, located on the Umatilla Reservation in Oregon. Photo: TamastsliktCulturalInstitute
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GAO report questions BIA's management of Indian energy duties

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is hindering energy development in Indian Country, the Government Accountability Office said in a new report.

Tribal lands contain vast amounts of untapped fossil fuel and renewable energy resources. Yet tribes have lost out on millions of dollars in revenues because the BIA lacks expertise and staff to make decisions on leases, rights-of-way and other agreements in a timely manner, the GAO said today.

"For example, in 2011, the President for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, reported that it took 18 months for BIA to review a wind lease," the report stated. "According to the developer of the project, the review time caused the project to be delayed and resulted in the project losing an interconnection agreement with the local utility. Without this agreement, the project has not been able to move forward, resulting in a loss of revenue for the tribe."

The report notes that the Energy Policy Act of 2005 authorized the BIA to approve tribal energy resource agreements, or TERAs, in order to streamline energy development. But not a single tribe has taken that path even though it was touted as a self-determination measure.

"We don't have a single TERA that's been signed and that means something has gone wrong," Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn, the head of the BIA, said at a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing in May 2014.

Officials from one tribe told the GAO that something indeed is wrong. They cited uncertainty with the TERA regulations regarding which activities they can take over from the BIA. They also were worried about the agency's "complex" application and review process, the report said.

"According to the tribal officials, without additional guidance on inherently federal functions, tribes considering a TERA do not know what activities the tribe would be assuming or what efforts may be necessary to build the capacity needed to assume those activities," the GAO reported.

The release of the report is sure to renew debate on S.209, the Indian Tribal Energy Development and Self-Determination Act Amendments. The bill, introduced by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), seeks to address some of the concerns raised by tribes about the TERA process.

“This new report highlights several federal impediments to energy development in Indian Country,” Barrasso, the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said in a press release. “Washington’s poor record keeping and lack of consistency is slowing down natural resource development for tribes. I intend to work with members of Congress to ensure that the [Interior] Department takes steps to quickly address these issues so that tribal leaders can develop the resources on their lands more expeditiously.”

The committee approved the bill in February but it has not come up for consideration on the Senate floor. The measure has nine co-sponsors -- seven Republicans and two Democrats.

Government Accountability Office Report:
Indian Energy Development: Poor Management by BIA Has Hindered Energy Development on Indian Lands (June 2015)

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