Navajo Nation President Begaye Pushes for Sovereignty in Energy Development on Tribal Lands

Navajo Times | Krista Allen
The Navajo Generating Station near Page, Arizona, could shut down this year, taking more than 1,000 jobs with it.

Published September 18, 2018

DENVER —  Navajo  Nation President Russell Begaye on Sept. 13 advocated federal energy policies that afford tribes new opportunities for energy exploration and development by promoting continued work on the Navajo Generating Station, studying certain categorical exclusions for Indian lands, and urging the Department of the Interior (DOI) to clarify the administration of Tribal Energy Resource Agreements (TERAs).

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye

During a meeting of the DOI’s Royalty Policy Committee (RPC), a 20-member group established by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke in March 2017 and tasked with advising the DOI on the collection of revenue from energy and mineral resources on federal and Indian lands, President Begaye pushed for federal energy regulations that promote tribal self-determination, streamline energy development and increase tribal presence in the energy market. One of four committee members who represent Indian tribes, President Begaye also serves as co-director of the Tribal Energy Subcommittee.

“Tribes have yet to gain full authority over their minerals and natural resources,” he said. “We still have to go through the Bureau of Indian Affairs for things like rights-of-way, approving leases and entering into business agreements. We look forward to taking over these functions and being important players in the future of the energy industry.”

During the RPC’s June meeting, held in Albuquerque, the Tribal Energy Subcommittee proposed a recommendation that sought to clarify wording in the Indian Tribal Energy Development and Self-Determination Act of 2005 (ITEDSDA). The act authorized tribes to enter into TERAs with the secretary of the Interior. Once approved, TERAs allow tribes oversight of their own energy transactions without requiring secretarial approval.

In the 13 years since President George W. Bush signed the ITEDSDA, however, no tribe has successfully completed the application process. The obstacle is the unclear definition of the phrase “inherently federal functions.”

TERAs allow tribes to carry out permitting and regulatory activities relating to energy development, “except for inherently federal functions.” In its June recommendation, accepted by the RPC, the Tribal Energy Subcommittee asked the DOI to clarify which activities are considered inherently federal functions.

On Thursday, President Begaye asked for an update on the process. John Tahsuda, principal deputy assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, promised to compile a list of inherently federal functions in three to six months.

“It’s a sad statement on our government’s behalf that we had regulations in place 10 years ago but still no tribes are benefiting from them,” Tahsuda said. “We are compiling a list of federal functions and concurrently working on how we will measure and build tribal capacity to take care of those functions. Our hope is to have regulations that are fully functional and available to tribes in the next year.”

Navajo leaders also raised questions about dual taxation and coal revenue dispute processes. Bidtah Becker, executive director of the Navajo Nation Division of Natural Resources, asked that dual taxation be eliminated in Indian Country.

“Dual taxation makes Indian Country less competitive,” Becker said. “As sovereign nations, Indian tribes have the right to tax and to use taxes to provide clean drinking water and improve roads. These different taxing jurisdictions create an uneconomic environment.”

Becker also asked the RPC for guidance on how tribes can gain footing in the energy industry.

“We believe strongly in the need to develop sustainable energy policies, and tribes need to be part of the answer,” she said. “With the current regulations in place, we are unable to use our own manpower, education and background to manage natural resources the way we want to as sovereign nations. We need your help in order to ensure smart energy investment on tribal lands.”

The RPC’s next meeting is January 31, in Phoenix.

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