Environment | National | Politics

Tribal views seen as influencing close vote on Obama-era energy rule

Flaring of gas in North Dakota, an activity associated with the loss of millions of dollar of royalties on federal and Indian lands. Photo: Joshua Doubek

Republicans have been dealt a setback in their efforts to roll back protections for the environment and the views of tribes in North Dakota are seen as playing a role in the national debate.

Since January, Republican lawmakers have pushed to repeal more than a dozen Obama-era regulations under the provisions of a law known as the Congressional Review Act. Eager to claim success in his “America First” agenda, President Donald Trump has been more than happy to sign the bills into law.

“Before this administration, only one time in our history had a president signed a bill that used the CRA to cancel a federal regulation,” Trump boasted on March 27. “So we're doing a lot of them, and they deserve to be done.”

But the campaign faltered on Wednesday as the U.S. Senate was unable to repeal a regulation that impacts Indian Country. The outcome was extremely close -- if just one member had changed his or her vote, Vice President Mike Pence could have been called in to break a tie.

Two Democrats from Trump-friendly states in fact were on the fence about the Methane and Natural Gas Waste Rule. But in the end, both Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia), refused to let S.J.Res.11 go through.

“My concern with overturning this rule comes down to waste – waste of a resource that would power homes and businesses across the country, and waste of royalties that either the taxpayers or tribal communities aren’t getting when methane is flared or vented,” Heitkamp said in a press release after the vote.

Heitkamp, who sits on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs , noted that the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, a major player in the energy industry, supports the rule. It was finalized by the Bureau of Land Management in November in an attempt to prevent waste of oil and gas resources, as well as curb pollution, on federal and Indian lands.

If implemented, the rule would bring economic benefits too. The tribe can collect more royalties from producers on the Fort Berthold Reservation because fewer oil and gas resources are lost to flaring or venting.

But as the repeal rule was making its way through Congress, members of a group called Ft. Berthold Protectors of Water and Earth Rights, or POWER lobbied their council to support the regulation. They pitched it as an exercise in self-determination.

"The rule honors tribal sovereignty by leaving tribes the authority to strengthen their flaring/venting regulations, if they so choose," Lisa DeVille, a prominent activist on the reservation, wrote in a letter published by The Fargo Forum.

"The tribe unanimously voted to support keeping the rule," the group added in a post on Facebook on Wednesday.

Flaring of natural gas is so prevalent in North Dakota that it has been visible from space. The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation is located in the region between the cities of Williston and Minot. Image: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

But the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation wasn't alone. Leaders of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, whose fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline has drawn international support, also voted in April to support the existing rule.

The tribe "supports clean air and opposes all attempts to weaken, dismantle, or overrule" the BLM regulation, the resolution stated.

Despite the setback on Capitol Hill, the Trump administration is being pressured to alter the rule by the energy industry and by lawmakers, including Heitkamp and Manchin. Secretary Ryan Zinke, the leader of the Department of the Interior, has already taken steps to roll back other Obama-era rules and the BLM one is definitely on the chopping block.

"As part of President Trump's America-First Energy Strategy and executive order, the department has reviewed and flagged the Waste Prevention rule as one we will suspend, revise or rescind given its significant regulatory burden that encumbers American energy production, economic growth and job creation," Kate MacGregor, the acting Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Land and Minerals, said in a statement after the Senate vote.

"The rule is expected to have real and harmful impacts on onshore energy development and could impact state and local jobs and revenue. Small independent oil and gas producers in states like North Dakota, Colorado and New Mexico, which account for a substantial portion of our nation's energy wealth, could be hit the hardest," she said.

The statement did not acknowledge the benefits tribes can see from setting limits on oil and gas waste. Royalties could increase by $1.9 million a year, the BLM said when it finalized the rule toward the end of the Obama administration.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), a former chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, didn't discuss tribes as he pushed for the repeal of the BLM rule either. He was the sponsor of S.J.Res.11.

“This methane rule is a terrible regulation. It’s redundant, it is unnecessary, I believe it is illegal – and it needs to go,” Barrasso said in a speech on the Senate floor on Thursday.

Related Stories:
Native Sun News Today: Energy industry fights rule that boosts tribal energy royalties (January 27, 2017)
Lakota Country Times: New rule curbs waste of tribal resources (December 6, 2016)