WASHINGTON — To achieve energy independence, the United States should focus on tribal lands with vast untapped supplies of coal, natural gas, oil and wind, the leader of the nation's largest Indian organization said Thursday.
Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said tribal lands contain about 10 percent of U.S. energy resources, but provide less than 5 percent of national energy production. He blamed bureaucratic obstacles that prevent tribes from generating an estimated $1 trillion in revenue from energy sources.
Keel cited at least 49 bureaucratic steps in the Interior Department alone that deter energy development. He called for Congress and the Obama administration to unleash the potential of Indian energy resources throughout the nation.
"Realizing the potential of energy resources offers immense promise for tribal communities and the United States as a whole," Keel said at the ninth annual State of Indian Nations conference in Washington. "To achieve the goals of energy independence and economic growth, the focus must turn to the potential in Indian Country."
Keel's speech came as Senate Democratic leaders announced that Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, is the new chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
The four-term senator said he is looking forward to leading the panel, adding that indigenous people face complex issues, including disparities in economic development, health care, public safety, education and energy development.
"I believe the United States can serve as a model for the rest of the world in the treatment of its first people. I am eager to holo imua - to move forward," Akaka said.
Reservations from Oklahoma to Montana and Alaska sit atop large amounts of oil, natural gas and coal. Others in wind-swept regions of the Northern Plains and on the West Coast have huge renewable energy potential.
But existing government rules make it easier for energy companies to pursue projects on nontribal land. As a result, tribes often miss out on the chance to develop their natural resources.
The Energy Department estimates that wind power from tribal lands could satisfy 14 percent of total U.S. electricity demand. Solar projects on tribal lands could generate more than four times the total amount of energy needed to power the country, the government says. Yet only a handful of commercial-scale, renewable energy projects operate on Indian lands.
Keel, who also serves as lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, said too many tribal homes lack electricity and affordable heat. He called energy development the best opportunity many tribal communities have to create jobs and improve their quality of life.
"Tribal energy development will mean long-term economic development, and in turn the United States will become stronger. That is an investment worth making," Keel said, noting that Energy Secretary Steven Chu last week announced $10 million for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects on Indian lands.
Nationwide, energy royalties paid to tribes through the federal government totaled more than $334 million in 2008, the most recent year with figures available. That was down sharply from 2007, driven largely by a drop in oil and gas prices.
More than 2 million acres of tribal land have been developed for oil, gas and coal, according to the government. Estimates show 15 million acres more have the same potential, with additional land suited for wind, solar and other renewable energy projects.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, told the conference that Indian lands should be an important part of what she called an "all-of-the-above energy policy" that includes oil, natural gas, coal, alternatives and renewables.
"We must support our native people in their efforts to develop energy resources on native lands, whether for use in native communities or to generate income to support our tribal governments and tribal enterprises," Murkowski said.