The United States pays a huge price for its dependence on foreign oil, both in dollars drained from consumers’ pocketbooks and in loss of control of its destiny.
So, for the financial well-being of the nation and in the interest of national security, President Barack Obama has made development of alternative domestic energy sources a cornerstone of his energy policy. That commitment is backed with millions of federal dollars, some of which has gone to many of the hundreds of Native American tribes sitting on resources needed to bring alternative sources of electricity flowing to homes and businesses.
“Overall, there’s a huge resource on Indian lands all over the country,” said William Brown, of New Mexico-based Sage West consultants & The Climate Reality project.
Brown said if just one-third of the solar capability on the Navajo nation’s vast reservation lands were developed, it would produce enough energy “to power the entire nation through the rest of this century.” Wind resources of tribal lands on the Great Plains from Texas to Canada could power 50 million homes.
“That’s a vast amount of energy,” Brown said.
If the resources on the nation’s tribal lands, otherwise referred to as “Indian Country,” are heavily developed, it could mean lower rates for electricity, new directions for the nation’s energy industry and a new economic reality for some Native American tribes and their neighboring communities.
Federal officials and tribes see the potential impacts, too. And many in the energy world, including Tracey LeBeau, director for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs, say the Southern Ute Indian Tribe provided the spark that helped ignite a fire for energy production and potential in Indian Country nationwide.
While the Utes spent decades developing, managing and profiting from development of oil and gas resources on their lands, other Native American tribes have taken note. The Southern Utes showed the world that it’s possible for sovereign tribal nations, no matter how small, to gain the training, technical expertise and business savvy needed to turn their lands into energy-producing and economic-development machines.
“Historically, tribes have not been in control of developing their resources,” said Carolyn Stewart, managing partner of Red Mountain Energy, a national consulting firm that aids tribes and investors in developing renewable energy resources on tribal lands. “That has been changing over the last 15 to 20 years, and the Southern Utes were the model for that change.”
Since 1994, the Department of Energy has invested more than $45 million in more than 200 tribal energy projects, Lebeau said. And millions more were spent last year to help tribes explore, develop and produce energy from their lands.
In fact, the U.S. Department of Energy doled out another $6.5 million to fund 19 “clean-energy” projects in Indian Country in February as part of the Obama Administration’s commitment to strengthening partnerships with Tribal Nations and supporting alternative eenergy development. Among the projects funded were a $347,000 Navajo Nation study of the viability of installing 4,000 megawatts of solar power and other renewable energy technologies on 22,000 acres of land in northwestern New Mexico.
Grants are just the beginning
New federal programs, including the DOE’s Strategic Technical Assistance Response Team, have been launched to advance clean-energy generation in Indian Country. LeBeau said the department also is designing energy-development training programs for tribal leaders. Other federal agencies, such as the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, are shifting focus and creating programs to aid tribal efforts to develop renewable-energy technologies on their lands.
William Anderson, chairman of the Moapa Band of Paiutes in Nevada, lauded the support his tribe has received from federal agencies, including the BIA and Department of Interior. The tribe is developing two large-scale solar projects that would produce up to 600 megawatts of energy on 3,000 acres of their reservation.
“(Those agencies) have been a big help in pushing our projects forward,” Anderson said. “And because of it, we’re going to set a precedent in Indian Country with one of the largest solar developments to date.”
Brown said the work is indicative of a national trend.
“The longer trend is toward cleaner energy where the fuel is free and abundant,” Brown said. “It’s just a matter of tapping into that in a big way to make the transition from fossil fuels.”
And officials say the energy development potential, particularly in the Southwest and Mountain regions of the United States, is significant.
Challenges meet solutions
Investors and energy companies aren’t blind to the opportunities in Indian Country, but there are many hurdles. Some industry watchers, including George Richardson, a local geologist and founder of the U.S. Energy Policy Coalition, even say the hurdles are so many and so daunting that it may be impossible for America’s homes and businesses to run entirely using renewable energy.
“But we have to try,” Richardson said.
So tribes and the U.S. government are working to systematically break down the barriers.
The nation lacks critical infrastructure and a comprehensive policy for renewable energy. And the power grids aren’t set up for a system that deploys only renewable energy sources, whether from tribal, public or private land. But a new $1.5 billion plan by Tres Amigas to link the nation’s three energy grids in New Mexico could bring solutions. (The Navajo Nation is a possible investor in the project.) And the Department of Energy is working with other federal agencies tofind ways to accelerate development of transmission projects, which currently can take up to a decade to site and permit.
Tribes have their own governing bodies and may not have a formal judicial system. And because of tribes’ sovereignty, federal laws may provide limited remedies for dealing with business disputes. But those issues can be addressed with good contracts. Investors willing to navigate that process can reap a reward because renewable projects can often be accomplished quickly on native lands.
The market for renewable energy can be unpredictable. Many power companies are buying only the renewable capacity they’re required to under state and federal mandates. The buying stops when the mandates are met. And often, potential buyers such as government agencies and utilities prefer to buy “paper credits,” rather than actual energy. But some states are creating and adjusting rules around paper credits, or Renewable Energy Credits, to remove the unfair competitive advantage paper credits can have over actual tribal energy.
Federal procurement policies also have slowed some energy deployment in Indian Country. But LeBeau said her department is looking at the policies and will provide guidance to other federal agencies. The energy Policy Act of 2005 allows federal agencies to procure tribal energy, and it even suggests preference in those cases where federal agencies can tap in, she said.
Land held in trust by the federal government for tribes also is stalling projects, tribal and industry officials said.
But new tribal land leasing rules give the Bureau of Indian Affairs just two months to approve proposed projects for Indian lands held in federal trust unless there is a “compelling” reason not to act.
Because tribes are tax-exempt, they are ineligible for many government incentives, which are tax-based. So consultants and private investors, who can use the credits, have formed creative partnerships to close the gap.
Despite the obstacles, the future is clear to alternative-energy advocates.
Brown said one only has to look at how the United States lags behind other countries in renewable-energy development to see what’s ahead.
“This market is something that could change quickly once the message gets out there,” Brown said. “This is the beginning of a multidimensional process of transforming our entire society.”
LeBeau called it “thenext generation of energy.”