In the summer 2010 Indian Report, we wrote “Though tribal lands make up less than 5 percent of the total land mass of the United States, they hold about 10 percent of the nation’s total renewable energy resources. If the United States were to make full use of the solar potential on tribal land alone, the entire country could be powered 4 or 5 times over (at 2004 consumption levels).”
Development of solar and wind energy resources on tribal lands could bring a significant economic benefit to Indian country and could mitigate oil dependence for the entire nation. Why, then, are these resources not more fully developed?
The holdup appears to be in the complex laws and regulations that govern the use of Indian lands – even by the tribes themselves. Building a solar or wind facility on Indian lands could take as much as three times as long as a project outside of Indian country, because of bureaucratic hurdles in the current regulations, which were established in 1961. Under those rules, according to the Department of the Interior, it is not uncommon for a simple mortgage application to languish for several years awaiting approval from the federal government.
Energy legislation introduced in 2010, and the HEARTH Act approved by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and the House Interior Committee this year, have addressed these delays. But neither attempt has resulted in a final bill, signed by the president. So in November, the Department of the Interior published revised regulations to try to accomplish through administrative rules what the Congress has not been able to achieve. The new regulations, now open for public comment, set 30-day and 60-day time limits for approvals of residential leases and leases for business, public, or religious purposes. The new rule also includes new procedures for the approval of wind energy evaluation and wind and solar resource development leases.
“At its core, this reform is about good government and supporting self-determination for Indian Nations,” said Assistant Secretary Larry Echo Hawk. “The revised regulations will bring greater transparency, efficiency and workability to the Bureau of Indian Affairs approval process, and will provide tribal communities and individuals certainty and flexibility when it comes to decisions on the use of their land.”