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Big Oil and the nuclear power industry aren’t the only ones applauding President George W. Bush’s energy plan. Native American tribes and their lobbyists are also cheered by a renewed national focus on energy production, and are pushing legislation of their own to see to it that Indian Country benefits. “We just see this as an opportunity,” says Mary Pavel, a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Endreson & Perry who represents several Native American tribes working in the energy production arena. “Everyone else is now focusing on energy, and we want to make sure we have a role.” Energy is a big issue for Native American tribes. Many reservations are situated on land rich in energy resources: water, sun, wind, coal, oil, or gas. For decades, tribes have benefited from the royalties companies pay to extract and use those resources. For some tribes, royalties and the taxes they assess on the mining or extraction companies are among the few sources of steady income. But the wealth of natural resources hasn’t fully translated into benefits for the tribes. Many reservations in remote areas with a spread-out populace are inadequately wired for electricity. Residents of these isolated reservations have to use wood and oil to heat their homes or cook, and run a generator for electricity. Last year, a study by the Energy Information Administration, the research division of the U.S. Department of Energy, found that 14.2 percent of Indian households on reservations lacked access to electricity, compared with only 1.4 percent of all U.S. households. Certain tribes are even worse off. On the Navajo reservation in Arizona, nearly 37 percent of homes lack electricity. On the Hopi reservation, also in Arizona, 29 percent of households go without. In the Standing Rock Reservation in the Dakotas, 18 percent of households do not have access to electricity. “In many parts of the country where you see these gigantic transmission lines running through tribal land, perhaps not literally, but figuratively, at the foot of those transmission towers will be a home without electricity,” says Kevin Gover, who served as assistant secretary for Indian affairs at the Clinton Department of Interior and is now a partner in the D.C. office of Steptoe & Johnson. Indian reservations also tend to benefit only from their raw natural resources, which are sold to companies to be refined and transformed into power. The tribes remain consumers, buffeted by the fluctuating prices they pay for their own reprocessed resources. “The crisis-type conditions that exist in California today, the high costs, have been endemic in Indian Country for years,” says David Lester, the executive director of the Council of Energy Resource Tribes. “We are considered to be remote, end-of-the-line customers. We are considered the tail of somebody else’s dog.” This spring, hoping to benefit from the new emphasis on energy production spurred by the California blackouts and the Bush administration, numerous tribes and their lobbyists pushed for energy legislation specifically tailored for Native American tribes. Members of the Intertribal Energy Network, a committee of tribal associations, got a face-to-face meeting in March with a staff member of Bush’s energy task force to pitch natural resources on Indian lands as part of the solution for energy problems. “I think we were all pleasantly surprised by how positive our welcome was,” says Roger Fragua, deputy director of the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, who attended the meeting along with leaders of regional tribal coalitions. “We don’t think we are the only answer to the country’s energy problems. But we are now at the table with people who collectively are the answer.” The Senate Indian Affairs Committee sponsored a roundtable on energy issues last month, with over 70 participants, including tribal members, congressional staffers, and government officials. The Senate Indian Affairs and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committees are planning for a joint hearing on energy and Native Americans, perhaps as early as this month. The tribes don’t just want to tap into their own coal or oil resources; they want to get into where the action and dollars are — actual production. With electricity prices rising, and deregulation turning the electricity grid into an open market, some of the tribes see building power plants as a solution for depressed tribal economies. Already, many are pursuing or being pursued by energy companies interested in teaming up. “This is an excellent opportunity for tribes to diversify their economies,” says Michael Anderson, managing partner of the D.C. office of Monteau, Peebles & Crowell, a Nebraska firm specializing in Indian law. “Since the casino market now has become fairly saturated in California and other areas, they are looking at other opportunities like energy. It’s an opportunity to get a power plant and get on the grid.” The Gila River Indian Community has a 100- to 500-megawatt power generation plant in the planning stages for its reservation on the outskirts of Phoenix. The Navajo Nation has an enterprise business, the Dine Power Authority, which is hoping to build both a 1,000-megawatt natural gas-fired plant and 462 miles of high-voltage transmission wires. Other tribes have their own plans, including constructing gas plants or alternative energy power plants using wind or water. “Tribes are just now beginning to see this potential for development,” says Arvin Trujillo, executive director of the Navajo Nation’s Division of Natural Resources. “The difficulty comes back to how do you gain the interest of Congress and of the states in terms of assisting tribes in these specific areas.” The Bush energy plan’s emphasis on increased production, easier plant siting, and opening land for development and exploration could have spillover benefits for the tribes. But they want more. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee is already reviewing several draft bills submitted by tribes and tribal organizations to help Native Americans’ energy needs. The most comprehensive of those bills so far is the Tribal Energy Self-Sufficiency Act, backed by the Council of Energy Resource Tribes. The stated goal of the legislation is for each tribe, by 2010, to produce enough power to completely fulfill its reservation’s energy demand. Among the provisions of that bill: Establish an Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs at the Department of Energy; direct the Energy Department to make grants to tribes for planning, building, and maintaining electricity plants and transmission lines; and create an Indian Energy Loan Guaranty Fund for the Energy Department to secure up to $2 billion in loans for plant projects. Tribes are also looking for tax benefits. Energy production on reservations is taxed at the federal, state and tribal level, making reservation energy production among the most burdensome for private companies. Many are suggesting tax credits for companies doing business on Indian land to ease that burden. The recent switch in Senate control triggered by the defection of Vermont’s Sen. James Jeffords from the Republican Party won’t likely derail — and may enhance — the Native American agenda. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who is taking over the Senate Energy Committee from Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, in the aftermath of the political shift, already has a section on Native American issues in his national energy bill. Bingaman’s bill would establish the Office of Indian Energy Policy and the loan program for Indian power projects. The tribes and their lobbyists are preparing for a big push this summer to ensure that the various suggestions of the Native American groups are incorporated into a final energy bill. “There is a major bill on energy policy moving, and we can influence the Indian and tribal aspects of that bill, and that alone is an improvement,” says Gover, who is a Native American. “At least we are riding the wave.”

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