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
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -