Business World

Tuesday 24 October 2017

Trump advisers court controversy with bid to privatise oil and gas-rich Indian lands

Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters
Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters

Valerie Volcovici

Native American reservations cover just 2pc of the United States, but may contain about a fifth of the nation's oil and gas, along with vast coal reserves.

Now, a group of advisers to US president-elect Donald Trump on Native American issues wants to free those resources from what it calls a suffocating federal bureaucracy that holds title to 56 million acres of tribal lands, two chairmen of the coalition said.

The group proposes to put those lands into private ownership - a politically explosive idea that could upend more than a century of policy designed to preserve Indian tribes on US-owned reservations, which are governed by tribal leaders as sovereign nations.

The tribes have rights to use the land, but do not own it. They can drill it and reap the profits, but only under regulations far more burdensome than those applied to private property.

"We should take tribal land away from public treatment," Markwayne Mullin said, a Republican US Representative from Oklahoma and a Cherokee tribe member who is co-chairing Mr Trump's Native American Affairs Coalition.

"As long as we can do it without unintended consequences, I think we will have broad support around Indian country."

The plan dovetails with Mr Trump's larger aim of slashing regulation to boost energy production. It could deeply divide Native American leaders, who hold a range of opinions on the proper balance between development and conservation.

The proposed path to deregulated drilling - privatising reservations - could prove even more divisive. Many Native Americans view such efforts as a violation of tribal self-determination and culture.

"Our spiritual leaders are opposed to the privatisation of our lands, which means the commoditisation of the nature, water, air we hold sacred," Tom Goldtooth said, a member of both the Navajo and the Dakota tribes who runs the Indigenous Environmental Network.

Reservations governed by the US Bureau of Indian Affairs are intended in part to keep Native American lands off the private real estate market, preventing sales to non-Indians.

The legal underpinnings for reservations date to treaties made between 1778 and 1871 to end wars between indigenous Indians and European settlers. Tribal governments decide how land and resources are allotted among tribe members.

Leaders of Mr Trump's coalition did not provide details of how they proposed to allocate ownership of the land or mineral rights - or to ensure they remained under Indian control.

One idea is to limit sales to non-Indian buyers, Ross Swimmer said, a co-chair on Mr Trump's advisory coalition and an ex-chief of the Cherokee nation who worked on Indian affairs in the Reagan administration.

"It has to be done with an eye toward protecting sovereignty," he said.

The Trump-appointed coalition's proposal comes against a backdrop of broader environmental tensions on Indian reservations, including protests against a petroleum pipeline by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and their supporters in North Dakota.

Yesterday, amid rising opposition, the US Army Corps of Engineers said it had denied a permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline project, citing a need to explore alternative routes.

The Trump transition team has expressed support for the pipeline, however, and his administration could revisit the decision once it takes office.

Tribes and their members could potentially reap vast wealth from more easily tapping resources beneath reservations. The Council of Energy Resource Tribes, a tribal energy consortium, estimated in 2009 that Indian energy resources were worth about $1.5trn (€1.42trn).

Deregulation could also benefit private oil drillers including Devon Energy Corp, Occidental Petroleum, BP and others that have sought to develop leases on reservations through deals with tribal governments.

Mr Trump's transition team commissioned the 27-member Native American Affairs Coalition to draw up a list of proposals to guide his Indian policy on issues ranging from energy to health care and education.

The backgrounds of the coalition's leadership are one sign of its pro-drilling bent. At least three of four chair-level members have links to the oil industry.

Several tribes, including the Crow Nation in Montana and the Southern Ute in Colorado, have entered into mining and drilling deals that generate much-needed revenue for tribe members and finance health, education and infrastructure projects on their reservations.

But a raft of federal permits are required to lease, mortgage, mine, or drill - a bureaucratic thicket that critics say contributes to higher poverty.

Irish Independent

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