Sovereignty versus stewardship


Last month, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) released the draft of a bill intended to “unlock the potential of Indian energy resources.” The bill would amend the Energy Policy Act of 1992 to ease restrictions on extractive industry’s activities on tribal lands, including the elimination of federal drilling fees, the reduction of federal environmental oversight, and the exemption of tribes from non-federal taxes on energy development projects. Through these marked limitations on federal environmental regulation of tribal energy projects, and the concomitant promotion of a “one-stop-shopping” federal permitting process for energy companies seeking to exploit tribal energy resources, the bill pits tribal sovereignty against environmental stewardship.  All of this is in service of prolonged reliance on fossil fuel energy resources.

Under section 204(b) of Dorgan’s draft bill, “Environmental Review,” the federal government effectively divests itself of environmental review responsibility, turning that resource-intensive and expertise-dependent task over to tribal governments. This provision, which allows the Secretary of the Interior to “delegate to any participating Indian tribe the responsibility to carry out any environmental review, decision making, or other activity pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act” provokes the concern among some citizens that tribal leaders – relatively unprepared to review energy project proposals, and interested in obtaining sorely-needed funds from those projects to build tribal economies – may rush to approve environmentally-harmful projects on tribal lands.

Approximately 2 million acres of tribal land have already been subject to fossil fuel development, such as coal, oil, and gas, and there are an estimated 15 million more acres that may be developed for fossil fuels. Senator Dorgan’s own energy priorities include the development of “clean coal” technologies such as carbon capture and storage, and the increase of long-term domestic oil supply. The Senator’s home state of North Dakota is home to the Bakken Formation, a shale and dolomite rock formation containing anywhere from 2 to 4 billion barrels of recoverable oil. Chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota, Marcus Levings, advocates for the development of the Bakken Formation and the use of lease monies to pay off tribal debt, build roads, and provide health care and law enforcement for the tribe. Tribal leaders like Levings see fossil fuel development as an opportunity to overcome poverty and promote sovereignty.

But at what cost to the environment, and in fact to true tribal sovereignty? David Lester, Muscogee Creek and the executive director of the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, condemns the current status of tribes as “energy colonies to the U.S. economy” due to inequitable royalty payment rates and the exploitation of tribal labor for energy development. Lester encourages tribes to “resist the temptation to sign leases,” and instead to cultivate true sovereignty and self-determination through tribal control over energy development processes via tribal-owned energy corporations.

Aside from the impairment on tribal economic sovereignty that could arise from the fossil fuel rush catalyzed by the proposed energy bill, extreme negative environmental impacts resulting from increased mining and drilling – air pollution, water contamination, and the destruction of land and wildlife – bring long-term health and cultural impacts that will impair community strength and limit the potential for real tribal sovereignty.  Dorgan’s bill does not provide for environmental equity and protection for tribes, nor for a truly sustainable American energy economy.

Caitlin Sislin, Esq. is the Advocacy Director for Women's Earth Alliance, where she coordinates the Sacred Earth Advocacy Network -- a network of pro bono legal and policy advocates in collaboration with indigenous women environmental justice leaders.  For more information about participating in the Advocacy Network as a pro bono advocate, or our three 2010 Advocacy Delegations, please contact Caitlin at [email protected]

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