SANDIA PUEBLO, N.M. (AP) — Federal and tribal politics and bureaucracy remain some of the reasons energy development has been so difficult in Indian Country, American Indian leaders said Tuesday.
Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly, National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel and others opened a three-day conference with a round-table discussion about the hurdles of developing natural resources, from oil and natural gas to renewable sources.
Shelly said his tribe is working on modernizing its energy and environmental codes to better position itself for new development opportunities.
"So many years, we've been talking," Shelly said. "I'm getting old. Let's get it done."
He urged tribal leaders to band together and take advantage of the opportunities they have to bring in revenue, create jobs and become energy independent.
On the Navajo Nation, which spans parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, unemployment tops 60 percent and some families are still without electricity and running water. Shelly said he doesn't have time to wait for some other state or federal agency to find a solution.
Tribal leaders have been asking for years for the federal government to streamline permitting processes and curb oversight to address the issue. It was Keel who urged Congress last year to pass legislation to expand leasing reform and create an Indian energy self-determination law.
Experts said Tuesday that tribal lands make up about 5 percent of the land mass in the U.S. but contain as much as one-fifth of the nation's energy resources.
In North Dakota, the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation is in the middle of one of the biggest oil and gas booms in decades. More than 800 wells have been drilled on tribal land, 30 rigs are operating there, and more than 16,000 semi-trucks are keeping the roads busy as part of the development.
Tribal Chairman Tex Hall said the tribe developed its own codes to balance development with environmental protections. He said those codes will continue to change as technology drives development.
Keel said one of the other focuses is protecting tribal sovereignty.
"Tribal governments have an important role in not only developing those resources but protecting the cultural resources, our sacred sites, all of those things that are important to Indian people and our way of life, not to mention raising the quality of life of our people," he said.