Norton: Indian Country won't get ripped off
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MAY 24, 2001

With a relatively small mineral reserve in the background and President Bush's energy policy still hot off the presses, Secretary of Interior Gale Norton on Wednesday promised that increased oil and gas development won't short shrift Indian Country and American taxpayers.

Extracting the nation's natural resources can be done in an environmentally sound way and bring economic benefits to Americans, said Norton yesterday in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. But she added that the Bush administration has to get a handle on a monumental problem which has plagued her department for more than one hundred years.

"We still need to have a clear accounting of the revenues that are due both to tribes and to taxpayers, whether we're talking about federal lands or tribal lands," said Norton.

Interior officials billed Norton's visit to the tallgrass prairie in northeastern Oklahoma as a way to showcase the public-private partnerships the Secretary believes are key to ensuring environmentally friendly development. The 39,000-acre prairie is home 100 oil wells and a bison herd of 1,600, up from 300 just several years ago.

Together, the federal government, the Osage Nation, and the Nature Conservancy, a private group, prove that "a healthy ecosystem and energy production can co-exist," said spokesperson Stephanie Hanna.

Conveniently enough, the trip was also a way to promote Bush's energy plan, released last week. Yet as Norton acknowledged the development here wasn't necessarily a shining example of how the Bush administration will operate, she used the occasion to push for increased drilling, including in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

"What we're talking about in the Arctic is very high-tech," said Norton. "This [oil field] is an example of what can be done on the low-tech end to help protect the environment."

"In Alaska, we're talking the space-age technology applied to energy resources," she said.

The Pawhuska field produces just 150 barrels of oil a day, a far cry from the heydays of the 1920s, when this and two others once produced 120,000 barrels a day. ANWR, on the other hand, can produce 600,000 barrels a day, argues President Bush, who says that is the exact number the United States imports from the oil-rich nation of Iraq.

But there is one big -- and potentially troublesome -- similarity between Pawhuska and ANWR: Indian ownership. The Osage Nation's rights to this reserve date back more than one hundred years and have brought in $1 billion in royalties to tribal members.

The Inupiat Eskimo-owned Arctic Slope Regional Corp. has rights to 92,000 acres of land in ANWR's coastal plain, the area targeted for development. The promise of jobs, money, and other benefits have convinced many Eskimos that drilling will be good for their community.

Making sure Indian owners get the money they are due is one of the big challenges facing the government, admitted Norton. In addition to the trust fund lawsuit which has been a black eye for Norton and her predecessors, the Osage tribe has filed a $2.5 billion lawsuit against the Interior, alleging financial mismanagement of their trust assets.

"Its our responsibility to upgrade the accounting abilities," said Norton. "We're focusing on the royalties issues and on the tribal accounting issues across the board."

Separate from the trust fund lawsuits, the government has settled $415 million worth of claims with some of the nation's largest oil companies for underpayment of royalties to Indian and federal owners, said spokesperson Department of Justice Charles Miller.

The government, however, chose not to get involved in a false claims lawsuit against Koch Industries. A federal jury found the Kansas company short-changed the government and the Osage Tribe of oil royalties, charges the company settled last year.

Get the President's Energy Policy:
Reliable, Affordable, and Environmentally Sound Energy for America’s Future (The White House 5/17)
ERRATA: Corrections (The White House 5/17)

Relevant Links:
The Osage Nation of Oklahoma -
Arctic Slope Regional Corp -
The Nature Conservancy -

Related Stories:
In The Hoop: Oil, Bison, and Indians, Part I(5/23)
Norton to meet with Osage leader (5/23)
Inside the energy policy (5/18)
Indian Country and the energy policy (5/18)

Background on the Koch lawsuit:
Koch ready to settle oil suit (10/27)
Oil royalty case settled (10/25)
Judge upholds Indian oil ruling (7/12)