Friday 24 November 2017

Native Americans using red tape to block oil and gas projects

Protesters demonstrate against the Dakota Access Pipeline close to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, North Dakota. Photo: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo
Protesters demonstrate against the Dakota Access Pipeline close to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, North Dakota. Photo: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo

Valerie Volcovici

When the US oil boom hit North Dakota a decade ago, wells sprang up quickly on the edges of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, an expanse of prairie and rolling hills three times larger than Los Angeles.

Tribe members, facing a 40pc unemployment rate and sending their children to 1950s-era school buildings, were eager to tap some of the state's most promising reserves. But layers of federal regulation - applying only to tribal lands - slowed them down for years, frightened away investors and cost them millions of dollars.

"The reservation looked like the hole of a doughnut," said Marcus Levings, who was chairman of Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation's reservation at the time.

"Everything around us was moving, and there was nothing in the middle."

Fort Berthold has since caught up to become one of the state's most productive regions. But the initial delays undermined the MHA Nation's sense of sovereignty and cost it badly needed revenue - an experience echoed in widespread complaints from other tribes and from energy firms, including some owned by Native Americans.

Now, with US President Donald Trump in office and oil prices rising, their frustration is fuelling a renewed push to streamline approvals for drilling and mining on Indian reservations.

Clearing regulatory hurdles for a single project on tribal lands can take as many as 50 steps, compared to a half-dozen for oil wells on private property. The process can take three times as long to complete, according to tribal leaders, lawyers specialising in Native American issues, oil company executives and federal regulators.

Officials at the agency overseeing that process - the US Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), a division of the Department of Interior - did not respond to repeated requests for comment. A spokesperson for Mr Trump, who campaigned on a promise to slash energy regulation, declined a request for comment.

The stakes are high. Native American reservations cover just 2pc of the nation's surface, but by some estimates contain as much as a fifth of all US oil and gas reserves, along with vast coal stockpiles.

Some tribes, for environmental or cultural reasons, have shunned the idea of developing these reserves, but many others want to tap the vast wealth beneath their homelands.

A coalition of Native Americans appointed by Mr Trump's team to guide his Indian policy is researching proposals to make energy development easier on tribal lands - including the idea of transferring them to private ownership.

The US holds title to about 56 million acres of tribal lands, a vestige of the treaties made between 1778 and 1871 to end wars between indigenous Indians and European settlers. The tribes have rights to the land - and the resources under the surface - but they do not own it.

Tribes are also seeking to curtail what they call unjust taxation of energy projects on tribal lands by states in which their reservations are located.

For many tribal leaders, the desire for more control over drilling projects is as much about self-determination as money.

In Fort Berthold, MHA Nation councilman Fred Fox said he felt it was time for Washington to hand more responsibility for tribal lands back to the tribes. They should not be managed as US-owned "public lands", he said, but rather as sovereign Native American nations.

"We have ancestors that owned these lands," he said, looking out over a snow-covered settlement in the White Shield section of the reservation.

"Let us collect our own taxes. Let us create economic viability for our people.

"Let us create the regulatory system." (Reuters)

Irish Independent

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