Last week, President Obama approved the first new oil refinery in more than 30 years.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the approval of a “land-into-trust” application from the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota.
“Today’s historic decision is another step forward in the Obama administration’s all-of-the-above energy strategy and commitment to strengthen Tribal communities and generate jobs for rural America,” Salazar said. “By working with the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara people to place this land into trust status, we are supporting infrastructure that will help bring American oil and gas to market while promoting tribal economic development and self-determination regarding land and resource use.”
The tribes requested that the Bureau of Indian Affairs take 469 acres into trust, with 190 set aside for the refinery and the remaining acreage to produce feed for their buffalo herd. Salazar went to the reservation to announce the approval at a news conference.
Environmentalists panned the move as a blatant push for pump-price-weary votes three weeks out from Election Day.
Salazar pitched the creation of 800 to 1,000 construction jobs, up to 140 operations jobs, and millions in annual revenue streams to benefit the tribes and surrounding rural communities, while pitching the standard administration line that under Obama “domestic oil and gas production has increased each year, with domestic oil production currently at an eight year high, and natural gas production at its highest level ever” — that hike being attributable to increased production on private lands while federal leases are stymied.
As proposed, the 13,000 barrel-per-day facility would handle crude from the wildly successful Bakken Formation fracking effort that has been hailed by the GOP as an American renaissance in fossil fuels.
But there are a couple of tripping points in the Salazar victory lap.
The project was initiated under the Bush administration, in 2003, and has been bogged by delays under this White House. Republicans also wryly noted that the administration’s proposed fracking regulations could make the refinery useless if they can’t extract oil and gas from the area.
Tex “Red Tipped Arrow” Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes, told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in July that the federal government needs to “stop treating Indian lands as public lands” — like when it comes to lengthy permitting reviews.
Hall also noted that in his quest for the refinery approval, he was “shocked” to learn that many of the people at the Bureau of Land Management, holding sway over the fate of such projects, had actually never witnessed a hydrofracking operation.
“So I asked the BLM, I said what if our tribe wants to put our own hydrofracking rule that meets or exceeds yours. North Dakota — EPA doesn’t regulate North Dakota, North Dakota gets treated as its own state. And I said the tribes are not treated as our own separate sovereign. You need to allow our tribe — because this is our homelands. The state has no jurisdiction there — needs to be treated the same and give us that ability, give us that right and the Black Feet Nation in Montana has its own hydrofracking rule,” Hall testified.
“Our tribe passed its own environmental code. It’s a million dollar offense if any oil company dumps on our reservation. No federal agency has given that to us. Nobody held draft, we did it on our own to protect our own homelands because we live there,” he continued. “…We’re a treaty tribe. We’ve never consented to be treated as a public lands and where did you get your authority? And the answer will be either FLPMA, with is the Federal Land Policy Management Act of 1976 or they’ll say it’s a 1938 Indian Mineral Lease and Oil and Gas Leasing Act. Well, we haven’t found that authority in any one of those two pieces of legislation.”
“Just answer the question. Don’t tell us how many times you’ve consulted with us because you haven’t. Simply answer the question of what — where do you get your authority to treat us as public lands?”
At an April hearing of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs, Hall testified that the Obama administration’s “actions to date have given me and other tribes the impression that tribal input is not desired or only minimally needed even though there is strong evidence that the proposed regulations will cost the MHA Nation and the surrounding community a sizable number of jobs and money.”
Which made it all the more interesting when Salazar hailed last week’s approval as part of a greater effort “to make sure that we are turning a new page on the relationships between the United States and the nation’s first Americans.”
“President Obama directed me to make sure that the past wrongs of history were righted and that we celebrated and helped in every possible way that we could… the 566 First American Nations move forward,” Salazar added.
“Our tribal-United States relationship where there is a mutual respect between the United States of America and the sovereign nations of this country is something that we are very proud of,” the Interior secretary continued.
But Indian tribes have often been on the short end of due process and accountability in this administration.
In July, Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) demanded that Salazar follow through on mandated reporting requirements and release labor statistics documenting the employment situation in Indian country — particularly as $3 billion in 2009 stimulus funds were targeted for tribal areas.
According to a July 2, 2012, letter from Acting Assistant Secretary Donald Laverdure to Indian tribal leaders, the senators wrote, the 2010 report would not be issued due to “methodology inconsistencies” and the department’s failure to provide clear direction to obtain the specific tribal information for the 2010 report.
“It is unacceptable that reports required by law to be released and the vital information contained therein are being withheld from Congress,” they wrote.
With the Interior Department website bragging about long-term economic development from stimulus investments in the Indian community, there’s no way to measure what benefit may have actually occurred — in communities where, as Laverdure testified before Congress in 2010, unemployment may reach as high as 80 percent.
The following month, Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) had to urge Obama to comply with a Supreme Court ruling, in Salazar v. Ramah Navajo Chapter, that the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Services had been underpaying contracts with Indian tribes going back to 1994.
“The time for litigation is over,” the senators wrote. “As with other recent settlements of historic claims, settlement judgments will be paid directly from the Treasury through the Judgment Fund. Neither the BIA nor the IHS will likely pay these judgments. There is, accordingly, no reason and no excuse for any further delay in resolving these claims.”
“The focus should be on making all Tribes whole, not on continuing litigation,” they stressed. Six other Democrats and Republicans co-signed the plea to Obama.
Still, Obama has been courting the support of increasingly influential and wealthier leaders of Indian tribes.
Tribes have donated about $2.5 million to Obama and $750,000 to Mitt Romney, the Los Angeles Times reported at the end of September.
Bill John Baker, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, told Obama at a July fundraiser his Oklahoma tribe was owed $50 million in health services contracting costs, the Times reported.
Obama said “Let me look into this and see what we can do” and Baker said he got a follow-up from the White House a week later — never mind that the month before, the Supreme Court had ruled that the administration needed up keep its promises and pay up.