Dueling perspectives on energy development on tribal lands emerged at a US House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee field hearing Tuesday morning in Santa Fe, when a panel of expert witnesses from tribes convened by the committee, chaired by US Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) was repeatedly interrupted by protesters and New Mexican Native Americans fought to have their views represented as well.
“This hearing did not address the citizens. It addressed the corporations. It addressed oil and gas industry,” said Daniel Tso, who was joined at the front of the room by Kena Chavez-Hinojos, from the Hopi and Cochiti Pueblo and VOICES program manager for Tewa Women United, and Jessica Montoya, with New Energy Economy. Holding a banner that read “No more extraction. Honor native lands,” Chavez-Hinojos broke down in tears, pleading for some consideration for the damage tribes have already suffered and risks energy extraction continues to pose to their health and the environment.
“Mother Earth is sacred, Mother Earth is all of us. The rivers are our bloodstream. The trees are our lungs. My child has to grow up with all this devastation, and I will not have it, I will not have you put my voice down,” she said.
As the mother of three, with another on the way, she added later, “I was telling my husband, I’m beating myself up, because I feel selfish for having this baby and bringing it into such a corrupt and awful world, but at the same time there’s so much beauty in it.”
The message delivered to the two members of the committee who attended the hearing was, in summary: Let the federal government get out of our way. The expert witness panel representing tribes from Colorado, Alaska and Washington spoke to a need for tribes to control permitting oil and gas development and logging on tribal lands so those activities can be expedited and their profits maximized. At the very least, the tribal consultation process needs revisiting—and that’s been proven true on the far end of the spectrum, with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe contesting efforts to involve them in reviewing the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline.
The Department of Interior holds 56 million acres in trust for Native American tribes, and in Alaska, 44 million acres are held by Alaska Native Corporations, the equivalent of federally recognized tribes. According to the hearing memo prepared by the majority committee staff (the Republican side of the Committee on Natural Resources), in Fiscal Year 2015, more than $829 million in royalties was disbursed to Native American tribes, the bulk of which comes from oil, natural gas and coal. But federal regulations and poor management have led to “missed opportunities” and “lost revenue” for tribes.
“The tribe respectfully suggests that, in some instances, the best way for the United States to uphold its trust responsibilities would be to step aside,” said James “Mike” Olguin, member of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe in Colorado, which has crafted its own processes for streamlining permit approvals to ease oil and gas development. The feds don’t have the data, resources, technological capabilities or staffing to meet the needs of the tribe, he argued, but the tribe does.
He pointed to the tribe’s ability to transform revenue from oil and gas development on its land and through subsidiary energy companies they operate in 10 states and the Gulf of Mexico into health insurance and college tuition for all tribal members. Likewise, the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, one of 12 land-owning Alaska Native corporations, has created a “fishnet fabric of sharing” of resource revenue, distributing about $1 billion to Alaska Natives statewide.
“We’ve used this resource revenue to bootstrap our Native corporation to advance and to evolve into other areas, so we’re doing things beyond resource development and we’re engaged in commercial enterprises across the country,” Richard Glenn, executive vice president for lands and natural resources for the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, said in his hearing testimony.
Asked specifically by Bishop about the potential expansion of protections for land near the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to prevent offshore drilling, Glenn said he generally was not in favor of setting aside huge swaths of land for any one purpose because it can have unintended consequences. After hunting caribou in summer was banned to protect the environment, he said, “We became more like wards of an agency than citizens of our own land.”
Closer to home came a thesis from Louis Denetsosie, president and CEO of the Navajo Nation Oil and Gas Company.
“The Navajo has always reinvented itself, and unfortunately, our tribe has been very dependent on coal and oil and gas … and it’s really time for the Navajo Nation to reinvent itself again and I agree with Mr. Olguin, it’s time for the government to step aside to let the Indian nations do their thing,” said Denetsosie. “They’re very self-reliant, they know how to do business with themselves and with the surrounding community.”
He called on Congress to reconcile pending legislation that would streamline permitting for and increase tribal control over energy extraction on tribal lands. The US House and Senate have each passed legislation, HR 538 and S 209, that would reduce some of the hurdles faced by oil and gas industry, Denetsosie said, and that would go a long ways toward spurring economic activity for the Navajo Nation.
“Tribal governments do better when they have control over their own resource decisions,” said Eric Henson, an economist with Compass Lexecon, research affiliate with the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, and a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation. “The incentives for risk and reward line up better when those who make the decisions potentially benefit the most from those decisions, and also potentially suffer the consequences of bad decisions. Having a federal authority from thousands of miles away decide which leases should be approved, what the appraisal should come in at, just doesn't square with the kind of risk and reward trade off that we tend to see that really helps economies in any country, not just Indian country, work the best.”
That may be true, Tso said in his comments after the hearing concluded, but tribes all run differently and some do not have the expertise to offer the needed level of oversight to oil and gas development. Given the decline in oil prices and the bankruptcies of recent energy companies, he asked, is that the bag these tribes would be left holding?
“Once all the land has been devastated—explored—what does that do to the people? Are we going be a nation without resources, without income, especially the generations out in front of us,” he said.
Absent from the conversation, Montoya with New Energy Economy pointed out, was the question of allowing tribes to develop more solar energy.
“Rep. Bishop's attempt to red-wash fracking for his beloved special oil interests fell flat on its face,” says Rebecca Sobel, climate and energy senior campaigner with WildEarth Guardians. “The people who live in these communities know they are getting all the pollution and other fracking problems and Bishop's campaign contributors are getting all the cash.”
Sobel says she’d tried to see local tribes represented on the panel, and was denied. “This is nothing more than an industry dog and pony show,” she says.
Committee staff say these hearings are a time for expert testimony, not public input.
"At a time when energy revenues have plummeted and the budgets for state and tribal governments are in crisis, we need diversify our economies and become less dependent on oil and gas development,” Laurie Weahkee, Native American Voters Alliance, said in a press statement. “Rep. Rob Bishop should promote a balanced approach to energy development that includes renewables such as wind and solar power. Rep. Bishop should also stop opposing common sense efforts to require oil and gas operators to cut natural gas waste from flaring, venting, and leaks that would generate more revenue for all New Mexicans and clean up our air."
The hearing was twice interrupted by attendees who, against policy in the capitol building, held up banners and stood silently until state police were able to urge them out of the room. The first declared “Rep. Rob Bishop: Work for the people! Not for gas companies” and the second “Fracking = ruptures, contamination, explosions, climate change.”
Bishop joked toward the end of the meeting as he thanked state police for their conduct that he didn’t get a chance to read the signs, not even the one he thought mentioned him, and could someone track that down for him so he could hang it in his office.