Tribal voices say they are finding more ways to voice their concerns to the Biden administration, even if that increased access doesn’t always translate into victories in environmental protection and climate action.
Biden called on all federal agencies to conduct “regular, meaningful and robust consultations” with tribal nations, noting that Native Americans are disproportionately affected by health and economic disparities and worsening climate impacts.
But it’s unclear whether that message filtered through to federal agencies and departments that interact directly with tribes, said Julia Bernal, a member of Sandia Pueblo and director of the Pueblo Action Alliance.
“Tribes should be at the table when it comes to making decisions and planning and instead of being told ‘look, this is the new development project that we are working on,’” said Bernal.
The administration’s efforts still rely too much on offers to listen to tribal opinions and less on in-depth consultations where those opinions carry significant weight, said Mario Atencio of Arizona-based Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment, representing the Navajo communities.
“The joke here is ‘well we asked for a consultation but what we got was a listening session,’ Atencio said.
The administration can help by giving tribes more federal resources to help them compete better for federal grants and with policies that develop locally grown clean energy and other climate-friendly technologies in communities, Bernal said. .
This would require a more consistent focus on tribes to overcome structural obstacles in order to have more say in federal decisions, such as authorization, in which Bernal said the process tended to favor the oil industry and gas.
“Our country can streamline processes for industries like oil and gas, but then they make those same licensing processes incredibly difficult for local economies,” she said. “It shows you where the priorities are. “
“Significant and robust”
Biden received praise for placing tribal members in high-ranking positions. He appointed New Mexico Representative Deb Haaland, a member of Laguna Pueblo, as Home Secretary, and Jaime Pinkham, a member of the Nez Perce Tribe of the Pacific Northwest, to a senior position within the Army Corps of Engineers.
It has also achieved environmental and conservation victories, including restoring Bears Ears and other national monuments overthrown by President Trump and killing the Keystone XL pipeline, which was opposed by a coalition of indigenous tribes. But Biden’s moratorium on new oil and gas rentals on federal lands and waters was blocked in July by a federal judge in Louisiana.
Some conservation actions have drawn criticism – tribes are not monolithic when it comes to views on leasing oil and gas – such as a proposal to create a 10-mile drilling buffer around remote Chaco Canyon from New Mexico. While some tribes have welcomed the move, the Navajo Nation has complained that its calls for a more modest five-mile radius to protect the revenues it derives from the oil and gas fields have been ignored.
The Home Office of Land Management “now wants to launch a formal tribal consultation after the fact,” said Mark Freeland, a delegate from the Navajo Nation Council.
Complaints that tribal voices are not being heard are common, although more often heard on the losing side, said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance representing oil and gas drilling in the United States. Where is.
“They often say, ‘They haven’t done enough consultations.’ Well you know sometimes you lose, ”she said.
And while some tribes want land off-limits to drilling, “you also have tribes who are very oil and gas-friendly, like the South Utes or the three affiliated tribes of North Dakota” —the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation— “and they’re very pro-energy because that’s how they provide the livelihoods of their people.
Mixed file on leases
Oil and gas drilling has long been a contentious issue between the tribes and the federal government.
During the Obama administration, Interior attempted to rescind a contentious oil and gas lease near Glacier National Park in the Badger-Two Medicine area, considered sacred by the Blackfeet Nation, said Hilary Tompkins, a former lawyer for the Obama era.
The attempt, which has sparked years of litigation, shows how difficult it is to simply cancel existing leases on public land, as Biden pledged during the campaign, she said.
But stopping such leases requires successfully navigating time-consuming procedural requirements, including detailed analyzes of existing resource management plans, said Tompkins, now an environmental practice partner at Hogan Lovells US LLP.
The interior decision to suspend oil drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge highlights Biden’s challenge to keep his promises to protect these pristine areas. This is a temporary moratorium while the ministry conducts a detailed review of the environmental impacts of the leases.
Biden is to be credited with taking swift action to block what many indigenous people saw as a rushed lease sale Trump announced a month before stepping down, said Tonya Garnett, special projects coordinator for the government. tribal from the native village of Veneto in Alaska.
Democrats in Congress are pushing to repeal 2017 provisions attached to sweeping tax legislation that opened parts of the safe house to drilling, she noted. This reversal hinges on passing Biden’s Build Back Better package, which was passed by the House but is being negotiated in the Senate.
“We still have a long way to go,” Garnett said. “After the sale of this land in 2020, we stood firm in our commitment to protect our sovereign rights and these sacred lands from those – including oil and gas companies – who would exploit them for profit. “
The tribes consider a particularly sacred piece of northern land – the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd – because indigenous peoples have lived among the caribou “since time immemorial,” she said.
Glimmer of hope
Environmental groups that work closely with tribes say focusing too narrowly on the need for in-depth consultation ignores centuries of federal abuse of tribes.
Economic opportunities for many tribes are limited to the point where they have little alternative but to maximize oil and gas income.
“These lands were seen as some kind of sacrifice zones by the federal government in the not-so-distant past,” said Kyle Tisdel, director of the climate and energy program for the Western Environmental Law Center.
Others say the administration deserves credit for trying to give tribes and other marginalized communities more political input after decades of neglect.
Tompkins, the former Home Affairs Lawyer, said she was optimistic that the recent “Racial Justice Awakening” highlighted “the long systemic problems facing the Indian country”, in many cases for hundreds of years.
“I think there is a greater awareness” of the plight of tribal nations, she said. “And I hope it’s not a one-size-fits-all deal.”