Tribes worry Congress will ignore their energy help

The Associated Press
Friday August 24, 2001

SAN JOSE — American Indians want to be part of the solution to the nation’s energy woes, and are eager to work with energy companies to build power plants and extract fuels on tribal lands. 

But with the federal budget surplus dwindling, they’re worried that lawmakers will ignore their efforts to gain access to some $2 billion in federal tax incentives and loans for major power projects. 

Tribes also are concerned that efforts to update tribal land use regulations could be overshadowed in the haste to develop a national energy policy, leaders said at a national Indian energy conference this week. 

“The procedures, policies and laws with regards to Indian land are 19th century structures; they are impediments,” said A. David Lester, executive director of the Denver-based Council of Energy Resource Tribes, a nonprofit tribal organization. 

While California’s ongoing energy crunch has boosted interest in building on tribal lands, Indians have worked with governments and businesses for decades to bring reliable energy service to residents and to spur economic development, Lester said. 

Power plants and renewable energy farms are being built or are in the permitting process in Arizona, California, Montana, Nevada and Oregon. Power companies say plants can be built quicker on tribal lands where people don’t have the “not in my backyard” attitude of more populated areas. 

Natural gas pipelines and transmission lines often run through reservation land, lowering the cost of both supplying fuel and sending out electricity. These frequently windswept or sunbaked areas are ideal for renewable energy projects as well. 

“They’re sitting on an incredible resource that’s never been quantified,” said Soren Bo Christensen, assistant manager for sales and marketing for Vestas American Wind Technology Inc. “This is the chance to harvest some of their own resources.” 

Tribes have worked with Congress to develop legislation that could resolve how much tribes can charge for power transmitted over their land, how to ensure the tribes have access to the power, and how to set fair prices for fuel. 

Karen Atkinson, senior counsel to Senate Indian Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, said the Senate could review the “Tribal Energy Self-sufficiency Act” as early as September. 

The bill already has been reviewed in the House, though no action was taken. Atkinson said the bill highlights tribal power issues in the hope that lawmakers will insert key aspects into the nation’s overall energy policy. 

Congress should take the tribes seriously, given their energy resources, Lester said. 

“We want to participate in the marketplace ... but Indian tribes aren’t interested in conquest. We’re interested in developing our economy,” Lester said. 

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