President Donald Trump at an oil refinery in Mandan, North Dakota, on September 6, 2017. Photo: D. Myles Cullen / White House
Environment | National | Politics

Republicans revive Indian energy measure with a more friendly president in office

A controversial Indian energy package that faced intense opposition during the Obama administration is on the Congressional agenda again only this time it might get a friendlier reception from the White House.

The House Committee on Natural Resources is meeting this week to consider H.R.210, the Native American Energy Act. It's the only Indian bill on the schedule for the markup session, which begins on Tuesday afternoon and concludes on Wednesday morning.

The committee hasn't held a hearing on H.R.210 during the 115th Congress. But Indian Country is well aware of its provisions, many of which are supported by certain tribes, especially those engaged in energy extraction on their homelands and who wish to streamline such development.

Yet there's another reason why the bill is familiar to many. Unlike most other Indian legislation, the Native American Energy Act lacks Democratic support.

The lack of bipartisanship helps explain why a prior version failed to advance during the last session of Congress. Democrats who might have otherwise supported the measure abandoned it in droves nearly two years ago, after then-president Barack Obama threatened to veto it.

Republicans who support the bill are hoping for a different outcome this time around. While the new administration hasn't taken an official position, President Donald Trump has already told tribal leaders that he supports efforts to speed up development on their lands.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota), far right, waves to President Donald Trump at an event in Mandan, North Dakota on September 6, 2017. Photo: D. Myles Cullen / White House

"All you want is the freedom to use them, and that’s been the problem. It’s been very difficult, hasn’t it?" President Donald Trump said at the White House in June, during his first public event that featured tribal leaders. "It will be a lot easier now under the Trump administration."

But Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), the sole sponsor of H.R.210, isn't necessarily thinking along those lines. He remains committed to helping tribes in the lower 48 states and Alaska Natives exercise more control over their resources, regardless of the occupant of the Oval Office.

"I don't really care about administrations," Young, a longtime member of the Committee on Natural Resources and the former chairman of its Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs, said during a meeting of the National Congress of American Indians earlier this year.

"I want to work with Congress," Young said.

Other key Republicans, though, think Trump's presence will help them get some kind of package over the finish line. They note that the last time a major Indian energy bill became law was when George W. Bush, also a Republican, was in the White House.

At the same time, these Republicans are taking a more bipartisan approach to the issue, at least on the Senate side of Capitol Hill. Unlike H.R.210, S.245, the Indian Tribal Energy Development and Self-Determination Act Amendments, counts one Democrat as a co-sponsor.

That lawmaker is Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota), who is known as an outspoken advocate for Indian Country's most vulnerable, particularly youth. She joined the president on stage last week at an event in her home state.

"Everyone’s saying: What’s she doing up here?" Trump said at an oil refinery in Mandan, where Heitkamp lives. "But I’ll tell you what: Good woman."

Tribal Leaders met yesterday with President Donald J. Trump and state leaders to discuss #TribalEnergy issues. A clip of...

Posted by U.S. Indian Affairs on Thursday, June 29, 2017
U.S. Indian Affairs (Bureau of Indian Affairs) on Facebook: Tribal Energy at the White House

And while more Democrats haven't signed onto S.245, they aren't standing in its way either. The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs advanced the bill in February by unanimous and bipartisan agreement.

“Our work on behalf of Indian Country is too important to delay any further consideration of these bipartisan bills, and we want to advance them to the floor for consideration," Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota), the chairman of the committee, said at the time.

H.R.210 is set to advance during the markup as well, with Republicans in firm control of the House Committee on Natural Resources. The memo for the bill pitches the bill as a means of improving economic development and employment opportunities in Indian Country.

"The current federal regulatory scheme obstructs historically impoverished tribes from fully realizing the huge economic potential of developing their natural resources," the Republican-drafted memo reads. "Because tribes with large energy resources tend to be located in rural areas, development of these resources offers one of the few non-government means available for them to create jobs and a revenue stream to meet member demands for tribal services or activities, investment in the local community, and new energy supply to meet consumer demand."

The bill's major provisions address appraisals of Indian lands, a tribal biomass energy demonstration project, leases for the Navajo Nation, federal reviews of development on Indian lands and lawsuits against Indian energy projects. The last two subject areas are controversial among Democrats and their allies in the environmental movements.

But tribal citizens who are concerned about resource extraction in their communities also oppose attempts to limit federal oversight, which they see as an essential element of the trust responsibility. Groups on the Navajo Nation and the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation in North Dakota, for example, are pushing their tribes to limit or even stop activities like drilling of oil and gas and hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking.

For that reason, some tribal advocates see S.245 as a more favorable vehicle. It includes provisions similar to those found in H.R.210 but doesn't touch the controversial issues of environmental reviews and judicial reforms.

The markup on H.R.245 starts at 4pm Eastern on Tuesday and continues at 10am on Wednesday. Both sessions will be webcast.

House Committee on Natural Resources Notices:
Full Committee Markup [PM Session] (September 12, 2017)
Full Committee Markup [AM Session] (September 13, 2017)

Related Stories:
Interior Department tries to streamline lengthy environmental review process (September 8, 2017)
President Trump promises 'freedom' for tribes seeking to exploit their resources (June 29, 2017)