Recent efforts to speed the process of approving surface leases on tribal lands have moved slower than a Mojave Desert tortoise.
But regulations proposed by the Interior Department Monday could help tribes more quickly gain Bureau of Indian Affairs approval for renewable energy, residential, or business leases on some of the 56 million acres of tribal lands held in trust by the federal government. The rules would speed processing of residential applications to build a home or larger housing development as well as commercial business or commercial wind and solar leases. The rules do not apply to oil and gas leasing.
Improving the federal government's relationship with tribes has been one of Interior Secretary Salazar's major goals. From an interview with the Washington Post:
We have turned a new page in the 400-year history of the interface between the American settlers of this country and the nation’s first Americans. That’s included a new relationship where the sovereignty of tribes is in fact recognized.
Tribal lands may hold 10 percent of U.S. energy troves but only half that has been made available for production, according to National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel.
Current "one size fits all" regulations adopted in 1955 don't make distinctions between residential, business and renewable energy leases and lack a set timeframe, allowing the Bureau of Indian Affairs to take no action on surface application decisions. That leaves tribes to run a gauntlet of regulatory red tape without any promise of results.
"By that time, the tribes lose the deal. The business partner doesn't want to wait that long," said National Congress of American Indians Attorney John Dossett.
New rules would require separate regulations to guide review of the different types of leases. The rules would also require the bureau respond within 30 days for residential leases and 60 days for renewable energy or business leases. Should the bureau fail to make deadline, leases would gain approval immediately.
“It will require the government to act,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said. “The government cannot sit on its hands, as it often has done.”
Over the past few months, the Interior and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo. have tried to break the slow cycle and speed leasing with recognition and legislation. Secretary Salazar gave a nod to the Moapa Solar Project in Nevada as part of a list of 18 solar and wind priority projects announced in March 2011 that would receive early consultation. The Moapa project would mainly occur on tribal lands of the Moapa Band of Paiutes.
High Country News covered a Barrasso-sponsored Indian energy bill in the works this past summer. The Indian Tribal Energy Development and Self-Determination Act Amendments of 2011 would put energy leasing work into the hands of tribes through tribal energy resource agreements, thereby expediting the projects (subscription only). Last January, Barrasso also introduced legislation that would allow tribes to conduct leasing without BIA approval.
It is unclear how those laws would impact the proposed regulations, which keep lease review within the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Yet even if regulations are approved mostly as-written, they may not have a chance to take effect, some say. Rules such as these don't often get the chance to spread their wings before administration changes clip them.
But in this case, the National American Indian Housing Council got their druthers in early this time, making the leasing rule reform requests while President Barack Obama came into office. Since then, the president has held several meetings with tribes and sent proposal drafts to tribal leaders throughout the rule-making process.
The announcement Monday began a 60-day comment period. Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk said rules should be finalized by next summer.
Kimberly Hirai is an intern at High Country News.
Image courtesy Flickr user ProfessorU.