White House blasts Native American Energy Act ahead of vote

A fracking well on the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation in North Dakota. Photo by Talli Nauman / Native Sun News

A controversial Indian energy bill has drawn the ire of the White House as Republicans prepare to push it through the 114th Congress.

Democrats already abandoned H.R.538, the Native American Energy Act, after their GOP colleagues refused to include a fix to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Carcieri v. Salazar. Now the Obama administration is taking aim at a measure that never received a hearing this year.

In a statement of administration policy, the White House Office of Management and Budget questioned several provisions affecting fracking, leasing, appraisals, the Navajo Nation and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. While a veto threat was not issued, the opposition spells doom for the package that's up for a vote today.

"Overall, H.R. 538 would not ensure diligent development of resources on Indian lands," the White House said on Wednesday.

A drilling well in Indian Country. Photo from Bureau of Indian Affairs

The document was significant in more than one respect. Although the White House has questioned Indian-related provisions in legislation -- an appropriations measure that was pulled from consideration this summer is one key example -- President Barack Obama has never issued a statement of administration policy against a stand-alone Indian bill since taking office in January 2009.

The opposition is also unusual because every Indian bill that has cleared the 114th Congress this year has seen bipartisan support. All passed either by unanimous consent or a voice vote and Obama has signed every single one into law, underscoring the non-controversial nature of measures that benefit Indian Country.

The sparring over the subject matter in H.R.538, though, is not unprecedented. The last big bill that addressed Indian energy -- the Energy Policy Act of 2005 -- drew heavy fire from tribes at the time amid concerns about the impact on the trust responsibility.

That measure too was pushed through Congress by Republicans and was supported by then-president George W. Bush. The political atmosphere was tainted by his administration's handling of the Cobell trust fund lawsuit and his appeals in two critical tribal trust cases affecting the Navajo Nation and the White Mountain Apache Tribe.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: House Natural Resources Committee Markup on H.R. 538, H.R. 1541, H.R. 1644, H.R. 1880, H.R. 2130, H.R. 2168, H.R. 2288

Like H.R.538, the Energy Policy Act was supposed to spur energy development in Indian Country. But the law's hallmark provision -- one that allows tribes to submit tribal energy resource agreements to the BIA for approval -- has never been utilized since 2005 precisely due to trust responsibility issues, the Government Accountability Office said a report earlier this year.

"We don't have a single TERA that's been signed and that means something has gone wrong," Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn, the head of the BIA, said at a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing in May 2014.

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) introduced H.R.538 on January 26. Although a similar version gained traction in the 113th Congress, the new bill was never given a hearing by any committee in the House.

The House Natural Resources Committee approved the measure at a markup last month over the objections of Democrats. It's due for a final vote on the House floor today, according to the majority leader's schedule. The House Rules Committee submitted the rule for consideration last night.

The Senate is taking a more measured approach to the subject. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, will hold a hearing on October 21 to discuss the GAO report. He's also introduced S.209, a bill to streamline federal review of Indian energy projects.

Committee Notices:
Full Committee Markup on H.R. 538, H.R. 1541, H.R. 1644, H.R. 1880, H.R. 2130, H.R. 2168, H.R. 2288 (September 9, 2015)
Full Committee Markup on H.R. 538, H.R. 1541, H.R. 1644, H.R. 1880, H.R. 2130, H.R. 2168, H.R. 2288 (September 10, 2015)
Oversight Hearing on “The GAO Report on ‘INDIAN ENERGY DEVELOPMENT: Poor Management by BIA Has Hindered Development on Indian Lands.’” (October 21, 2015)

Government Accountability Office Report:
Indian Energy Development: Poor Management by BIA Has Hindered Energy Development on Indian Lands (June 2015)

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