Last summer, as President Barack Obama visited the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in Cannon Ball, he called the economic and educational hardships faced by Native Americans “a moral call to action.” The president has claimed he will write a “new chapter” by keeping promises to Native Americans, but sadly, his administration’s recent regulations deny Native Americans economic opportunities they sorely need.
Consider the Department of the Interior last week released top-down regulation of fracking on tribal lands, which the federal government holds in trust. These redundant rules leave American Indians at a competitive disadvantage, quashing a huge opportunity for economic growth.
Tribal lands host an outsized — and grossly underdeveloped — share of energy resources. As the Washington Times recently noted, “About 25 percent of the nation’s onshore oil and gas reserves rest underneath tribal lands, but those lands account for roughly 5 percent of U.S. production.”
Development of these resources could change the lives of American Indians. The Council of Energy Resource Tribes estimates the energy resources on tribal lands could be worth as much as $1.5 trillion. In addition to raising revenue, energy development would also create good jobs, even for workers with little education.
Native Americans desperately need this sort of economic boost. More than one in four live in poverty, according to the Pew Research Center. Their high school graduation rates linger at 17 percent below the national average. Even as the economic recovery continues, native people continue to experience roughly double the unemployment rate of the nation.
Nonetheless, the federal government’s dysfunctional relationship with tribes has crippled energy development, according to a February 2014 report by the Property and Environment Research Center.
“On Indian lands, companies must go through at least four federal agencies and 49 steps to acquire a permit for energy development, compared to as few as four steps off reservations,” writes the report’s author, Shawn Regan. “The effect of this complicated bureaucracy is to raise the cost of entering into resource development agreements with tribes or individual Indians.”
Under the management of the federal government, tribal fossil fuel sales dropped 21 percent between 2003 and 2013, according to the Energy Information Administration. On state and private lands, they grew 34 percent during the same time period.
Native Americans know that the federal government is stifling their energy development and economic growth. Testifying to Congress last April, James “Mike” Olguin, the acting chairman of the Southern Ute Indian Tribal Council, denounced the “unacceptable, bureaucracy-driven delays in federal approval of mineral leases and drilling permits.”
Olguin described how, on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, tribes “watched their non-Indian neighbors get rich from mineral resource development, as their Indian lands remained unleased and undrilled month after month while awaiting federal approval and permitting.” He decried the “punitive effect of those delays on the poorest individuals and communities in the U.S.”
Likewise, the National Congress of American Indians recently wrote that it “urges Congress and the Administration to remove barriers to the deployment of these energy resources that offer immense benefits to tribes, Native citizens, surrounding communities, and the American economy.”
But instead of loosening the red tape restraining energy development on tribal lands, the Obama administration tightened the bonds. The Department of the Interior issued new regulations on hydraulic fracturing that apply only to federal and Indian lands, not state or private property.
Energy developers who are considering exploration on Indian lands know that they will face new requirements on wastewater disposal, well construction and disclosure. Why bother with the added hassle and expense?
Already, states have led the way in creating sensible fracking regulation. They know their residents, environment and economies better than the federal government does, and they’ve crafted policies to match the unique needs of their state. American Indians should have the chance to do the same on their lands.
The Department of the Interior’s new fracking regulations make it harder for American Indians to compete and to have their shot at the American dream. Unless the Obama administration reconsiders, tally this down as just one more broken promise.
Jillian Melchior is a fellow at the Independent Women's Forum and writer for National Review.