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The Native American Energy Act: Economic Prosperity or Traditional Tribal Values?

13 July 2016

The state of American Indian land sovereignty, health, and welfare becomes more and more complex as the demand for American energy independence grows.

The Native American Energy Act, passed on 8 October 2015, introduced by Don E. Young (AK-R) and Paul Gosar (AZ-R), clears the way for expanded energy development on Native American land. This new legislation speeds up the judicial review process for new drilling projects, streamlines leases, appraisals, and other land agreements, and limits outside public comments about tribal energy development.

In March 2015, the Department of the Interior passed rules in order to support safe and environmentally responsible hydraulic fracturing. These fracking rules addressed well integrity, water protection, and disclosure of chemicals to the public. Under the Native American Energy Act, these environmental protections no longer apply to American Indian land.

In addition, the legislation authorizes the Navajo Nation to conduct mineral leasing independently of the Department of the Interior, as long as the land has been previously approved for development.

Many tribal nations are seated upon an abundance of natural energy resources, such as oil, natural gas, and coal. However, 15 million acres of potential energy resources on these lands remain undevelopedSupporters of the bill argue that the Native American Energy Act relieves many of the federal regulatory burdens that hinder tribes from capitalizing on their wealth of energy resources. Those who approve of the bill believe that the act will support job creation on reservations, a more diversified economy, and increased tribal sovereignty.

Those who oppose the passage, such as Raul Grijalva (AZ-R), worry that this legislation will undermine environmental protection provided by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), diminish the accountability of the federal government for environmental damage, and weaken judicial recourse for people affected by the environmental damage. Some also worry that certain measures of the act would undermine public participation and transparency.

Opponents also denounce the public comment limitation as a way to reduce public engagement and participation in the NEPA process, instead of promoting tribal control as proponents suggest. In addition, concerns have been expressed that the legislation may encourage non-tribal energy companies to make tribal partnerships to benefit from reduced environmental regulations and restricted judicial review.

Energy development on American Indian land is especially complex because of the diverse opinions within tribes and communities. Widespread economic and social problems afflicting tribes, such as low employment and education rates, health-care access, poverty, and substance abuse demand attention and action. 

Many native people understand the benefits of the financial opportunity that the natural resources of their land would provide in order to fund the infrastructure to address the issues that affect their communities and relations. 

However, a large number of American Indian individuals and groups, such as Honor the Earth and the Indigenous Environmental Network, oppose energy development on tribal land because of the deep environmental, community health, and cultural impacts of land destruction for energy exploration. 

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), for example, released reports on the serious land and water contamination of Navajo land and water from decades of uranium mining, which has lead to detrimental health effects for the people and ecosystems in the Four Corners area.

Indigenous people in resource-rich land are stuck between a rock and a hard place: economic prosperity, which could combat the economic and social problems which plague tribal nations, or environmental responsibility, which many view as inseparable from traditional cultural values, in which land sovereignty and preservation are the cornerstone of indigenous cultural revitalization.

This blog post was written by Emma Rohan, an intern with Speeches. 


Related tags: blog, energy, Native-Americans, Navajo-Nation, NEPA

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