May 10, 2017 / 12:13 AM / 3 months ago

U.S. lawmakers seek looser energy development rules for tribal lands

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bill to ease restrictions on energy development on U.S. tribal lands has a good chance of passing the Republican-controlled Congress this year, after several failed attempts since 2013, the chair of the Senate Indian affairs committee said.

Many Republican lawmakers, along with President Donald Trump, have expressed support for more oil drilling, coal mining and other energy projects on Native American reservations, which are overseen by the federal government. Several additional layers of regulatory bureaucracy have slowed those efforts.

"I think we will be able to get the bill through the House this go around," Republican Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota, who authored the bill with seven other Republican Senators, said in a recent interview with Reuters.

He said he believed the bill also had the support of "a broad spectrum of tribes across the country" and would "empower" Native Americans.

The bill, dubbed the Tribal Energy Development and Self Determination Act, would authorize tribes to conduct their own energy resource appraisals. It would streamline the permitting process for drilling and mining and provide incentives for tribes to enter into joint-venture agreements with private companies.

Former President Barack Obama had opposed a previous House version of the bill in 2015 because it would have exempted tribes from some federal environmental regulations. Other versions were blocked after being rolled into broader bills that were defeated.

Tribal lands cover just 2 percent of the nation's surface but by some estimates contain as much as a fifth of all remaining U.S. oil and gas reserves.

But clearing regulatory hurdles for a single project on tribal lands can take as many as 50 steps, compared to a half dozen on private property, according to Reuters interviews conducted in January with tribal leaders, lawyers, oil company executives and federal regulators.

Hoeven and Montana Republican Senator Steve Daines joined around a dozen representatives of mineral-rich tribes for a meeting with White House officials last week to discuss ways to reduce those barriers. Tribal participants at the meeting included representatives of the Crow Agency of Montana, the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota, the Navajo Nation and the Southern Ute Indian tribe of Colorado - all tribes that currently produce oil, gas or coal.

"We are just trying to amplify our opportunities, change the narrative of Indian country, and establish access to the administration," said C.J. Stewart, a representative of the Crow.

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