Tribal leaders, U.S. lawmakers discuss energy development, drawing protest

Tribal officials told a congressional panel meeting in Santa Fe on Tuesday that they want more autonomy from the federal government and that their communities are unjustly burdened by red tape that prevents energy development on Native lands. Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources, chaired by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, joined by Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., and a panel of expert witnesses, said the policies of the Obama administration and Interior Department are stalling energy development for tribes. They said the administration has failed to understand the needs of tribal communities on the ground and is helping to perpetuate poverty as a result.


Tribal officials told a congressional panel meeting in Santa Fe on Tuesday that they want more autonomy from the federal government and that their communities are unjustly burdened by red tape that prevents energy development on Native lands.

Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources, chaired by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, joined by Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., and a panel of expert witnesses, said the policies of the Obama administration and Interior Department are stalling energy development for tribes. They said the administration has failed to understand the needs of tribal communities on the ground and is helping to perpetuate poverty as a result.

But local environmental advocates and some members of New Mexico pueblos who disagree attended the hearing at the state Capitol in protest.

The groups, including Tewa Women United, WildEarth Guardians, the Sierra Club and New Energy Economy, said the hearing was biased and advocating for corporations, rather than the interests of Native communities.

At issue is proposed legislation, including the Native American Energy Act, HR 538, that would allow Native communities exception from many federal regulations that govern energy development on both federal and tribal land. Under the resolution, environmental assessments required by the National Environmental Policy Act could be avoided, and federal regulations for oil and gas operations meant to curb venting and flaring practices could be ignored.

Those who support the legislation say it will put permitting of energy development back into the hands of tribal leaders and expedite mineral extraction on Native lands, making the process more affordable for companies.

The committee members cited a 2015 U.S. Government Accountability Office report that determined tribal energy development had been hindered in part by poor management at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, resulting in “missed opportunities” for extraction and income. The GAO is the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress.

Speaker Richard Glenn, an executive vice president for the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. in Barrow, Alaska, said that under the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, “we become more like wards of an agency, rather than citizens of our own land.”

Bishop said, “If we can allow you to make those [permitting] decisions for yourself, those would be better decisions. Those would be wiser decisions, more effective decisions.”

The committee chairman asked panelist Louis Denetsosie, president of the Navajo Nation Oil and Gas Co., if Denetsosie believed the BLM oversight amounted to merely a way to generate money for the government through taxes.

“I cannot look at this any other way than having a tax on the resources of the Navajo land,” Bishop said.

“BLM does very little work,” Denetsosie said, referring to permitting and regulating development on Navajo land. “I see it as a tax, too.”

“The Navajo [Nation] has always reinvented itself,” Denetsosie continued, “… and it is really time for the Navajo Nation to reinvent ourselves again. It is time for the government to step aside to let the Indian government do their thing.”

The Obama administration, however, has decried the resolution, saying it limits public comment and removes crucial environmental oversight. Local groups present Tuesday said the bill facilitates oil and gas drilling for companies without considering the environmental or health impacts for the surrounding communities.

Bianca Sopoci-Belknap, protesting with renewable energy advocacy group New Energy Economy, silently interrupted the first 10 minutes of the hearing. With her infant child strapped to her chest, she stood with her back to the panel and held up a banner that read, “Rep. Rob Bishop: Work for the People! Not for Gas Companies.” She was escorted out of the room by a state police officer.

Bishop said he would like a copy of the banner for his office.

Methane pollution was not mentioned by members of Congress or the panelists, but protesters said it was the elephant in the room — and is increasingly a worry for those living close to oil and gas development. Methane, a translucent greenhouse gas leaked and vented during oil and gas production, has been linked to health risks, including headaches and severe asthma, and to a warming climate. San Juan County in Northern New Mexico is home to the nation’s largest source of concentrated methane pollution, which a recent NASA study found was tied to many of the large oil and gas producers in the region.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and BLM each have proposed federal regulations that require producers to curb venting and flaring practices, and prevent methane from leaking, in order to curb pollution and help meet international goals to reduce global warming.

“The everyday 24/7 exposure to methane gases and other volatile gases is a concept that cannot be walked away from,” said Daniel Tso, a former council delegate with the Navajo Nation, just after the field hearing concluded and as the congressmen made their way out of the room.

“The community live with it, they breath it,” he said.

Kena Chavez-Hinojos of the Cochiti and Hopi pueblos, representing the tribal women’s advocacy group Tewa Women United, held a banner reading “No More Extraction/Honor Native Lands.” Jessica Montoya, with New Energy Economy, held the other end.

“My child has to go through all of this devastation,” Chavez-Hinojos, who is several months pregnant, said, as tears fell down her face. “Our nation’s people are scared.”

A tenth of all land in New Mexico is tribal land, the third-largest percentage of any state in the nation.

Elise Daniel, a spokeswoman for the House Committee on Natural Resources, said the hearing was not a forum for public comment, but written comments are welcome and can be mailed digitally to Alex Perez at alex.perez@mail.house.gov. The record of the hearing will remain open for 10 business days.

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or rmoss@sfnewmexican.com.

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