Obama Administration Clears Barriers Holding Up Tribal Renewable Energy
11/29/2012 @ 12:49PM |847 views
The Department of the Interior announced new regulations on Tuesday that tribes hope will unlock economic development and renewable energy production on Indian lands. The final rule updates Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) regulations guiding the leasing approval process on tribal lands last modified in 1961.
The new rule [PDF] streamlines the federal surface leasing regulations on the 56 million acres of land held in trust by the Department of Interior for tribes. The regulations distinguish between residential, business, and wind and solar energy leases for the first time, come with enforceable timelines, and establish a new resource assessment and development process for wind and solar energy projects on Indian lands. (For more details, see the Interior Q&A, fact sheet, and comparison of existing and final regulations [PDFs].)
“This final step caps the most comprehensive reforms of Indian land leasing regulations in more than 50 years and will have a lasting impact on individuals and families who want to own a home or build a business on Indian land,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement.
Tribes had urged Congress and the BIA for years to update the sclerotic approval process for leases on Indian lands. When I interviewed him last spring, Jose Aguto, then a policy adviser with the National Congress of American Indians, bristled at the bureaucratic obstacles slowing tribal renewable energy projects.
“As [former U.S.] Senator [Byron] Dorgan was wont to say, ‘49 steps and two to three years in Indian Country, seven steps, two to three weeks, just outside Indian Country for similarly situated land’ – that’s the broad-brush inequity that we’re talking about,” he said.
“In Indian Country, only the Department of Interior can do appraisal and approval, and they often don’t have expertise on the ground. Why not let tribes, or a third party, do the appraisal? And then have a 30-day window to approve?”
On November 27, the Department of Interior announced new regulations clearing the bureaucratic barriers holding back wind and solar projects on tribal lands. Credit: Office of Indian Energy, DOE
The final rule addresses many of the concerns Aguto and other tribal advocates expressed to me in reporting I did for a story published at Chinadialogue in May of last year. The new regulations mirror those in the BIA’s proposed rule, which I reported on at this blog in January.
As mentioned above, the new leasing approval process replaces a one-size-fits-all approach with one customized to the proposed use of the land, be it a new home, business, or wind or solar energy project. The BIA now has up to 30 days to approve residential leases, subleases, and mortgages, and up to 60 days to approve business leases and leases for renewables projects. If the BIA does not meet those deadlines, projects are automatically approved.
The new regulations also require the BIA to approve leases unless it finds a compelling reason not to do so and to defer to the tribe’s negotiated value for a lease of tribal land, eliminating the need for an additional round of costly appraisals.
The Department of Interior noted that the new rule helps to implement the Helping Expedite and Advance Responsible Tribal Homeownership Act (HEARTH Act). The bill, signed into law by President Obama in July, gives tribes the option to develop their own leasing regulations as long as they are consistent with the new BIA rule.
The new leasing approval regulations were developed with input from tribal leaders consulted at meetings convened by the BIA in March and April 2011 and again in January 2012. “It’s a good example of the Department of Interior listening to tribal leaders. It’s freeing our tribal economies and allows us new businesses and opportunities,” Thom Wallace, spokesman, National Congress of American Indians, told E&E reporter Jessica Estepa (subscription required).
Indian tribal lands cover almost 5% of the United States yet hold 10% of the country’s renewable energy resources. This potential was underscored last week when the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to approve a power purchase agreement (PPA) for the nation’s largest utility-scale solar project on tribal land.
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) agreed to purchase all of the electricity generated by the K Road Moapa Solar plant, a 250-megawatt project slated to be built on the Moapa River Paiute Reservation, located northeast of Las Vegas. The $1.6-billion project is expected to come online in 2016.
The new leasing approval rule takes effect 30 days after publication in the Federal Register.