An ongoing research project explores energy development and production on Native American lands, along with the obstacles and paths to energy sovereignty for Native Nations.
In most of the popular discourse over energy policy, Native Americans feature prominently as voices of opposition to energy development. Whether it’s the Dakota Access Pipeline, Line 3 Pipeline, Line 5 Pipeline, uranium mining near the Grand Canyon, lithium mining in Nevada, or offshore wind development, Native voices have been strong messengers that have helped sway governments and public opinion on important questions around energy development, infrastructure siting, and more.
But these oppositional attitudes are just one piece of a rich, complex, and sometimes fraught social fabric surrounding Native Americans, Native American reservations, and questions about energy development. Although Indigenous peoples are important participants in debates over environmental topics, they often are inaccurately homogenized as holding monolithic views on energy issues, particularly fossil fuel development.
However, the development of coal, oil, and natural gas is an important contributor to local economies, provider of jobs, and significant government revenue source for some Native Nations. And although this development occurs on a relatively small number of reservations, the issue affects some of the largest Tribes, both in terms of population (such as the Navajo, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chippewa, and Muscogee) and reservation size (such as the Navajo, Uintah and Ouray Ute, Crow, Wind River, and Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikara).
As these Native Nations look to a future in which coal, oil, and natural gas may play far smaller roles in the domestic and global energy systems, these communities are seeking to understand the risks and opportunities associated with a changing energy landscape. Unfortunately, relatively little research has examined these issues in depth, and even less research has done so in meaningful collaboration with Tribes and Tribal members.
Working with Native Nations
For the past two years, we have been working with multiple Native Nations in the western United States to understand decisionmaking around the future of endowed resources on reservations and energy development on reservation lands. Because there is a long history of extractive and exploitative research on (and not with) Native Americans, we have been careful to work closely with our Tribal partners to ensure that our work supports their priorities, rather than simply extracts knowledge.
First, we (led by Andrew) have carried out interviews with Tribal leaders and members to understand their perspectives and priorities around future energy development. To date, we’ve conducted interviews with members of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, and we are planning engagement with more Native Nations in the months ahead. These interviews provide a wide range of perspectives on how leaders and members wish to proceed in the energy transition.
Second, we (led by Daniel) are taking this qualitative information and translating it into quantitative outputs, helping to illustrate how different pathways of energy development may affect future energy production (focused on oil, gas, wind, and solar) and associated revenues for Tribes. We are working closely with Tribal experts to accurately model these outcomes and will share preliminary results with Tribal leaders and members for input before publishing final results.
Third, we (led by Monika) are carrying out bespoke legal analyses to inform Tribes as they seek to take advantage of new opportunities (such as applicable Tribal, state, and federal laws and newly available clean energy tax incentives) and overcome any legal or policy barriers that stand in the way of the energy future they desire.
Barriers to Energy Sovereignty
The notion that Native Americans should determine their own energy future is known as “energy sovereignty.” Based on our interactions with Tribal leaders and members, along with recent congressional hearings, this idea of energy sovereignty is widely supported for Native Americans across ideological and partisan lines. Energy sovereignty also may be the most important single issue for Native Nations when considering energy development (and other policy topics), and it’s easy to see why: they, like any other sovereign body, wish to control their own futures.
Because of the importance of this issue, one of the first steps of our research project was to review evidence from a wide range of sources to identify the major barriers and opportunities to securing energy sovereignty for energy-producing Native Nations. This week, we’re pleased to share the results of that initial work: a new article coauthored by Daniel and former Resources for the Future intern Alana Davicino published in the journal Energy Research and Social Science.
The article first identifies a series of discriminatory, inhumane, and even genocidal actions taken by the US federal government that continue to impair the ability of Native Nations to exercise their energy sovereignty. These tactics include land dispossession, murder, forced migration, “assimilation,” and other actions that continue to reverberate far beyond the narrow field of energy development (though they also affect energy development).
We discuss the consequences of the Dawes Act of 1887, which led to enormous land losses for Native Nations, as well as “checkerboarding” of reservations. Checkerboarding refers to lands within reservation boundaries where surface and mineral parcels are owned by a mix of Native Nations collectively, Native individuals, governments, and non-Natives who acquired these lands in the aftermath of Dawes. When lands are owned in this piecemeal way, it becomes very difficult to carry out any economic activity, including energy development, such that dozens—if not hundreds—of owners need to agree before a project can move forward.
The journal article highlights other issues, including the need to obtain permission from a complex and understaffed federal bureaucracy before beginning energy projects, a lack of internal capacity, and several other factors that continue to impede energy sovereignty for Native Nations.
Securing Energy Sovereignty
But all the news isn’t bad. Primarily because of the efforts of Native peoples, the number of opportunities is growing for Tribes and their members to participate in, and benefit from, energy development.
First, Tribal leaders and entrepreneurial individuals have developed mechanisms that enable Native Nations to enhance their ability to identify, assess, develop, and manage new energy projects. These efforts date back at least to the 1970s, when the Council of Energy Resource Tribes was established to help coordinate energy development and share information across more than two dozen Native Nations, mostly in the Intermountain West region. And although the Council of Energy Resource Tribes no longer exists, new Indigenous-led organizations such as the Midwest Tribal Energy Resources Association and Indigenized Energy have emerged to support Tribal efforts in energy development, particularly for solar energy.
Some Tribes, such as the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, have developed a deep body of expertise related to energy development (primarily natural gas). Starting in the 1970s, the Tribe leveraged this expertise to improve contract terms, environmental enforcement, royalty compliance, and other aspects of regulation that had been poorly managed by the federal government. Thanks to these innovative measures, the Tribe boasts large wealth funds that support government operations, provide income for members, and more.
Other tools that have enhanced energy sovereignty for Tribes include formal and informal events, such as the National Council of American Indians’ Annual Convention and Marketplace, the US Department of Energy’s annual Tribal Energy Summit, and other forums where Native leaders share lessons learned, form collaborative relationships, and enhance their internal expertise. In addition, the Department of Energy and independent researchers (like us) have worked to provide decision-support tools that enable Native Nations to make better-informed decisions about future energy development.
Most recently, a provision in the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 has enabled Tribes and Tribally owned corporations to—for the first time—take advantage of federal tax credits for energy projects. Because Tribes and Tribally owned corporations do not have federal income tax liability, they generally have been unable to access the federal tax credits that serve as one of the main tools to incentivize wind, solar, carbon capture and storage, and other energy projects. Tribal leaders and independent experts (including our team member Pilar Thomas) have stated that access to these credits will be a “game changer” for energy development, particularly solar projects, on reservation lands.
Although numerous barriers remain in the way of securing energy sovereignty for Native Nations across the United States, new efforts led by Indigenous peoples and new policies are taking steps toward dismantling those barriers. As we look toward a future in which coal, oil, and natural gas may play a far smaller role in the US and global economies, it will be crucial to ensure that the Native Nations that currently depend on these resources have the tools they need to build stronger economies and communities, all while upholding their environmental and cultural values.
Monika Ehrman, Andrew Curley, and Daniel Raimi are co–principal investigators on the project. Other team members are Catherine Hausman (University of Michigan), Monte Mills (University of Washington), Angela Parker (University of Denver), Brian Prest (Resources for the Future), Pilar Thomas (Arizona State University, Quarles & Brady), Alex Thompson (Resources for the Future), and Margaret Walls (Resources for the Future). Our student contributors include Alana Davicino (Indiana University), Majerle Lister (University of Arizona), Rosalind Cuneo and Avey Menard (University of Washington), and Jaime Collazo (Southern Methodist University).