Renewable energy on tribal lands stalls out

Is the Bureau of Indian Affairs delaying wind and solar projects?

 

In 2008, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, in south-central South Dakota, was ready to start developing the 30-megawatt Owl Feather War Bonnet wind farm on tribal lands. The turbines would generate money for the tribe and some of the power would go to homes on the nearly 2-square-mile reservation, covering some of the poorest counties in the country. That’s a big deal considering that homes on reservations are ten times more likely to have no access to electricity than households in non-Indian communities. But even the Rosebud Sioux ran into a roadblock: the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The BIA took a long 18 months, starting in 2008, to approve a lease for the Rosebud Sioux’s wind farm. The delay lasted so long that two agreements with regional utilities who had agreed to purchase the wind power expired before the BIA issued its decision. Years later, the tribe is still hammering out the same details and waiting to build its wind farm. “We haven’t given up on it yet,” said Ronald Neiss, president of the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Utility Commission.

The Rosebud Sioux isn’t the only tribe struggling with the BIA and energy development. Tribal lands cover 5 percent of the U.S. land base but account for 10 percent of the nation’s renewable energy potential. Yet, while developers have built 686 utility-scale wind farms and 787 utility-scale solar arrays on non-tribal lands since 2004, only one significant wind project is generating power from tribal lands. (Another tribal wind farm and a solar project are now under construction, too.) Critics have largely assigned blame to the BIA, saying the agency adds an extra layer of bureaucracy and a measure of ineptitude to already-complex permitting processes.

moapa-solar-shovel-groundbreaking-png
Members of the Moapa Band of Paiute, then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and others break ground on the country's first tribal solar energy project in Nevada, March 2014
Tracey LeBeau/ Energy Department

This June, the Government Accountability Office called out the BIA’s “poor management” in a report to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. Among several blunt assessments of the agency’s failings:

"BIA does not have comprehensive data to identify ownership and resources available for development, does not have a documented process or data to track and monitor its review and response times, and some offices do not have the skills or adequate staff resources to effectively review energy-related documents."

The GAO also pointed out the BIA's lack of transparency and use of incomplete, outdated and incorrect property data and other files to complete its reviews. “These shortcomings can increase costs and project development times, resulting in missed development opportunities, lost revenue, and jeopardized viability of projects,” the report says. BIA mismanagement has also encouraged energy companies to pursue coal, oil and gas development on non-Indian lands instead of tribal lands.

Of course, building large energy projects and getting regulatory approval isn’t easy to begin with. Many tribes have limited investment funds, minimal infrastructure and additional taxes that already complicate projects. And reservations, with a mosaic of trust lands and individually- or family-owned parcels, also present complex situations for plotting large development. For instance, many reservations have “fractionated” parcels where dozens and sometimes hundreds of relatives own a share of an ancestor’s land, making management decisions nearly impossible.

“You have these multiple overlapping historical factors on Indian lands, and energy development is one of these things where having contiguous, abutting parcels of land is really important,” said Eric Henson, senior vice president with Compass Lexecon, an economic consulting firm, and a research affiliate with the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development.

The BIA isn’t the only agency responsible for the additional challenges on tribal lands, but Henson, the GAO, and others say the agency is hindering rather than helping the situation.

“Why does the BIA have to sign off on where you’re going to park a wind turbine anyway? It’s a historical holdover,” Henson said. The Department of Energy or other Department of Interior agencies are better equipped to consult on and approve tribal projects.

The White House has tried to address the tribal energy logjam by awarding millions of dollars in federal grants for renewable energy, hydropower, and fossil fuel projects on tribal lands. The BIA has also identified 25 tribal renewable energy projects that could be completed within the next five years and produce up to 2,200 megawatts of power.

The GAO report recommends the BIA establish a documented and transparent process for reviewing and responding to projects and improves its data collection and tracking. This week, during a speech to the National Congress of American Indians in Minnesota, Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Arizona, also said Congress needs to help address tribes’ qualms and figure out how to get tribal renewable projects in motion.

In 2005, Congress authorized Tribal Energy Resource Agreements, to be administered by the BIA, to ease tribes’ efforts to enter power purchase deals and leases. But not a single tribe has used the process because the agreements don’t clearly outline where tribal and BIA responsibilities begin and end.

Henson suggests a “horizontal handoff” of responsibilities from the BIA to tribes, recognizing that tribes are, after all, sovereign nations. “What we’ve consistently found is you have to let tribes make their own decisions,” Henson said. “It’s the single best thing that works for tribal development.”

Joshua Zaffos is an HCN contributing editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • NEWS DIRECTOR
    Based in the state capitol, Boise State Public Radio is the premier NPR affiliate in Idaho. With 18 transmitters and translators, it reaches 2/3rds of...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR MOJAVE DESERT LAND TRUST
    Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is accepting applications for an Executive Director. This position will provide leadership to RSA, develop a fund raising plan, and effectively communicate...
  • WRITING PLACE: THE ANIMAS RIVER REGION WRITING WORKSHOP
    REGISTER ONLINE BY: Friday, June 15 WHERE: Durango, CO (location TBD) WHEN: Monday, July 16 Youth workshop: 10 a.m. - 12 p.m. (18 and under,...
  • EQUITY IN THE OUTDOORS COORDINATOR
    The Equity in the Outdoors Coordinator will lead community engagement, program implementation and development, and data collection for the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM). EVOM...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a personable individual who is passionate about conservation to join our Sandpoint Field Office. The Community Engagement Assistant will...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION INTERN/ASSISTANT
    Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATIVE MEDIA SERVICES
    In-depth investigations of polluters, lobbyists, regulators, elected officials and others focused on environmentally damaging projects in the U.S. and internationally. We specialize in mining projects,...
  • UNDEVELOPED 40 ACRES - SOUTHWEST COLORADO
    in beautiful Montezuma County.
  • TRUCK DRIVER
    Class A & B drivers, pass all DOT requirements and clean driving record
  • MARIA'S BOOKSHOP FOR SALE
    - Thriving Indie bookstore in the heart of Durango, Colorado. General bookstore with 34-year history as a community hub for Southwest region of CO. 1800...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details: