PERC Report Calls for More Autonomy for Montana Tribes on Energy Development

The Absaloka Coal Mine on the Crow Indian Reservation in Southeast Montana (photo courtesy of Reuters).

A new report from the Bozeman-based Property Environmental Research Center (PERC) highlights the vast economic potential that natural resources offer to Montana Indian Tribes and faults federal bureaucracy with keeping tribes from realizing the benefits of those resources.

The report, released yesterday and titled “Unlocking the Wealth of Indian Nations: Overcoming the Obstacles to Tribal Energy Development,” was authored by Shawn Regan. It states that tribes across the American West — especially those in Montana — stand to benefit greatly from oil, coal, and natural gas reserves on tribal lands.

“The energy resources beneath Indian lands are hardly trivial,” the report explains. “Reservations contain almost 30 percent of the nation’s coal reserves west of the Mississippi, 50 percent of potential uranium reserves, and 20 percent of all known oil and gas reserves in the United States.”

“The Council of Energy Resource Tribes, a tribal energy consortium, estimates Indian energy resources to be worth nearly $1.5 trillion,” the report notes.

According to the World Bank, $1.5 trillion into perspective is nearly equivalent to the entire 2012 Gross Domestic Product of Australia

The report asserts that, although these natural resources that are owned by technically sovereign tribal governments, the vast majority remain undeveloped due to the federal bureaucracy that holds sway over tribal lands. PERC also criticizes what it calls the underlying “notion that tribes are incapable of managing their own lands.”

“But federal control of Indian lands largely deprives tribes of the opportunity to benefit from such wealth. Throughout Indian Country, the vast majority of energy resources are undeveloped. Indian lands are managed in trust by the federal government,” PERC states.

“Any attempt to explore or develop resources on tribal lands must endure a costly rigmarole of bureaucracy and regulations. Making matters worse, the legacy of the federal trusteeship of Indian lands has left most tribes with complicated property institutions that are virtually anathema to economic growth.”

The report emphasizes how every lease on tribal lands must approved by the federal government.

PERC also points out the chronic economic problems that are all too typical on Indian Reservations, including unemployment rates four times the national average, a poverty rate of nearly 40 percent, an average income that is less than half the average of Non-Indian citizens, and near-total reliance on federal spending.

Natural resource wealth, PERC claims, offers the opportunity for economic growth, jobs, and self-sufficiency.

“For many tribes, energy development is the primary revenue generator to fund education, infrastructure, and other public services on tribal land. Some also view energy development as a path to promoting tribal self-determination,” states the report. “Revenue from coal development on the Crow reservation in Montana, for instance, enables the tribe to control more of its own affairs apart from the federal government’s trusteeship of Indian land.”

Crow Tribal Chairman Darrin Old Coyote has been particularly vocal in his denunciations of attempts to stop natural resource development on Indian lands, as the Crow Nation sits on billions of tons of coal reserves, and coal revenue accounts for two-thirds of the tribe’s non-federal revenue.

“Shawn Regan’s report is a well-researched and accurate review of the primary challenges to developing tribal energy resources for the long-term benefit of our people,” stated Old Coyote in his review of PERC’s report. “The combination of multiple federal agencies involved in permitting any new energy development, along with highly fractionated ownership, makes the process pretty daunting for all but the most determined developers.”

PERC’s report comes as Old Coyote and other Montana tribal leaders are growing increasingly vocal in their calls for more autonomy in allowing energy development on tribal lands.

In an interview with Clara Caufield for the latest edition of Native Montana Magazine that was re-published at “The Flint Report” at the Northern Broadcasting System, Northern Cheyenne Tribal President Llevando “Cowboy” Fisher announced his support for coal development on the tribe’s Southeast Montana reservation.

“At one time, I was opposed to on-reservation coal development, but have re-considered, considering the bleak financial future facing our Nation,” stated Fisher. “We, as Northern Cheyenne must now explore all options for self-sufficiency.”

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