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Rare site: a wind turbine on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.

There was another State of the Union address last week – one that also attempted to lay out a clean energy plan that both parties should support.

On Thursday, Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians, delivered the 9th annual State of Indian Nations Address. Keel’s theme was one of Indian nations working toward prosperity and becoming “full partners in the American economy,” including through energy development.

One opportunity for tribal nations is energy development. Our deep relationship to the land and our reverence for the earth’s natural resources provide a clear course for our communities.

Tribes care for approximately ten percent of America’s energy resources, including renewable energy, worth nearly a trillion dollars in revenue.

And yet, only a handful of tribes have been able to successfully utilize these resources.

Keel cited the example of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes of the Fort Berthold reservation in North Dakota, who overcame a string of “49 bureaucratic steps” to open up their land for oil exploration. The oil revenue has been an economic boon for the long-impoverished tribes.

But if it’s that difficult to smooth the way for oil companies, you can imagine how hard it is for tribes to develop renewable energy.

In a commentary yesterday, the Center for American Progress noted that wind power from reservation lands could supply 14 percent of U.S. wind power, and enough solar energy to provide 4.5 times the electricity the nation consumes.

Many tribes are eager to partner with private sector developers in order to build large-scale clean energy projects that are both profitable and respectful of tribal values such as environmental stewardship and keeping families together by providing good jobs on reservations. Many of these sorely needed investments unfortunately never come to fruition because of policy barriers that slow development in Indian country.

Last week, reporter Kevin Dobbs wrote about some of the barriers that South Dakota tribes face in developing wind power on their lands – area with some of the strongest wind power potential in the country.

For instance, wind development on the Lower Brule Sioux reservation is constrained by federal rules protecting whooping cranes. But these rules only apply on government and reservation – on private land just a few miles away, the whooping cranes are on their own.

“Any rational person would see that doesn’t make any sense,” said Michael Jandreau, tribal chairman of the Lower Brule.

On top of that, developers on tribal lands can’t take advantage of federal tax credits, making renewable energy projects less lucrative. And there’s no bankruptcy provision for Indian tribes, making private financing difficult for any sort of investment.

Tribes like Minnesota’s Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux have been able to finance their own energy projects with gambling revenue, because their tribal land – and casino – happen to be located near a major metropolitan area. But for most tribes, the reality is one of devastating poverty – unemployment rates on some reservations hover near 50 percent.

The Center for American Progress calls for a five-step plan to streamline bureaucracy and increase funding for the Tribal Energy Program, a Department of Energy initiative that provides financial and technical assistance for tribes to develop renewable energy resources.

For Pat Spears, president of the South Dakota-based Intertribal Council on Utility Policy, these are familiar issues. “We have to fuel the fire and get these policy issues out there again with the administration and the new Congress,” he said in an email response to last week’s story.

In his address, Keel says these are issues that conservatives should champion:

We share the passion for self-reliance and more efficient government brought by many new members of Congress. In many instances, that is exactly what Native people need: a government that respects our Constitutional sovereignty, a government whose leaders want to cut the red tape that blocks investment and prevents us from participating fully in economic life.

So we have an idea that liberals support, that speaks to conservative values of self-reliance, shouldn’t cost a whole lot of money, and has the potential to lift thousands of Americans out of poverty.

Any reason this can’t get done?

Photo by David Bartecchi via Creative Commons.

Ken Paulman

Ken is the director of the Energy News Network at Fresh Energy and is a founding editor of both Midwest Energy News and Southeast Energy News. Prior to joining Fresh Energy, he was the managing editor for online news at Minnesota Public Radio. He started his journalism career in 2002 as a copy editor for the Duluth News Tribune before spending five years at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, where he worked as a copy editor, online producer, features editor and night city editor. A Nebraska native, Ken has a bachelor's degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a master's degree from the University of Oregon. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors.

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