Thousands of tribal citizens and their allies marched through the streets of Washington, D.C., for Native Nations Rise on March 10, 2017. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
National | Politics

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hosts session on consultation and infrastructure

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs is hosting a session on a tough topic that has taken on added significance due to the #NoDAPL movement, the Trump administration's push for more infrastructure and some high-profile legal disputes.

The protracted battle over the Dakota Access Pipeline underscored long-running tribal complaints regarding inadequate consultation about projects that impact their communities. In June, two weeks after the controversial project was completed, a judge ruled that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failed to address concerns raised by opponents in Indian Country.

President Donald Trump himself intervened to ensure the crude oil pipeline became operational. In boasting of his decision, he insisted just three weeks ago that critics "didn't know" why they fought the project as he vowed to push through similar developments.

Throw in some closely-watched lawsuits -- including one that industry groups hope will be heard by the nation's highest court -- and a near-perfect storm is forming over Capitol Hill, the likes of which hasn't been seen in more than a decade. That's the backdrop for a roundtable titled “Best Practices in Tribal Consultation and Stakeholder Engagement: Federal Permitting and Infrastructure Project Review in Indian Country."

The session on Thursday afternoon will bring together representatives of tribal organizations, federal agencies and industry. Although a list of participants hasn't been publicly released, it's expected to include the National Congress of American Indians, the United South and Eastern Tribes, the Federal Communications Commission, the Department of the Interior and, yes, even the Army Corps.

In response to the #NoDAPL movement, the Obama administration took a stab at the issue when it initiated tribal consultation regarding infrastructure. But the final report has basically been forgotten because it wasn't released until January 18, two days before the Trump team took over and essentially ignored its recommendations by approving Dakota Access and the Keystone XL Pipeline.

"These projects must include tribes early in the process so the negative impacts to our lands, waters, and sacred places can be avoided," NCAI President Brian Cladoosby said in June in response to the court decision in the #NoDAPL case. "Environmental justice demands that the rights of tribes are respected.”

The ruling wasn't the only victory when it comes to infrastructure and consultation. Since March, Indian landowners and tribes have won rulings affecting a natural gas pipeline that has been operating illegally for nearly two decades, a transmission line whose agreement was negotiated more than 50 years ago but has never been updated and a wind farm that was built without compensating the tribal owners of the underlying mineral estate.

Industry interests, naturally, are paying attention. They've already got the ear of a friendly president and his administration -- including Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, who appears so bothered by delays in the federal review process that he's labeled nearly a third of his subordinates as disloyal.

But when energy corporations start losing in court, or when they feel a federal process isn't going their way, they turn to Congress. That's what happened in 2005, when a national energy policy law mandated a study of rights-of-way in response to a dispute involving one tribe and one gas pipeline.

Two years later the study was completed. Yet despite the lobbying frenzy that it generated, almost no one talks about it -- it's not even mentioned in the January report on infrastructure.

The roundtable takes place at 2:30pm Eastern in Room 628 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. The committee hasn't said whether it will be webcast.

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice:
Roundtable on “Best Practices in Tribal Consultation and Stakeholder Engagement: Federal Permitting and Infrastructure Project Review in Indian Country.” (September 28, 2017)

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Interior Department tries to streamline lengthy environmental review process (September 8, 2017)
President Trump finally acknowledges opposition to Dakota Access Pipeline (September 6, 2017)
Wealthy backers of Dakota Access claim opponents caused 'billions' in losses (August 23, 2017)
Energy firm seeks to keep illegal pipeline in place over objections of Indian landowners in Oklahoma (August 15, 2017)
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President Trump promises 'freedom' for tribes seeking to exploit their resources (June 29, 2017)