Senate panel approves bill to streamline tribal energy development

By Paulina Pineda | Cronkite News

Navajo officials on Thursday applauded a Senate committee’s approval this week of an energy bill that includes provisions making it easier for the Navajo Nation to sign leases for mining on its lands.

The bill, which covers a wide range of tribal energy-development issues, is an important step toward self-determination for the Navajo, who will use it to build a sustainable economy, a spokesman for the tribe said.

But environmental groups said they are likely to push back against the measure, which now goes to the full Senate, because it could allow more mining on Navajo lands.

Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club‘s Grand Canyon Chapter, praised those parts of the bill that encourage the development of renewable energy, but worried about the sections that enable continued coal mining.

“Having more coal, focus on more coal, is not great,” she said.

Robert Tohe, an environmental justice organizer with the Sierra Club, said many Navajo residents do not want an expansion of coal mining on the tribe’s lands.

Navajo Generating Station near Page is at the center of a legal dispute between the Salt River Project and the Navajo Nation.
Navajo Generating Station near Page is at the center of a legal dispute between the Salt River Project and the Navajo Nation.

“Navajo environmental and grassroots groups are opposing coal developments on Navajo sacred land,” Tohe said. “Navajo Nation is bent on continuing to mine coal, which will impact their (residents’) abilities to have a safe and clean environment.”

But Jared King, a spokesman in the Navajo Nation Washington Office, said comments about continued coal mining signify a “fundamental misunderstanding” about the bill’s intent, which he said does include a focus on clean energy.

He said the bill, passed unanimously Wednesday by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, creates opportunities for the Navajo and tribes throughout the U.S. to engage in energy development.

“The Navajo Nation is committed to providing opportunity for clean energy to enter into the market,” he said in an email. “This bill will help that.”

Under the bill, the Navajo can sign mineral resource leases on their lands, if effected according to tribal regulations. Most mineral leases would be limited to 25 years, but could be renewed for an additional 25-year term. Leases for oil and gas production would be limited to 10 years.

King said the Navajo Nation will be able to lease land both to development companies and to itself. He said the bill would improve tribal energy resource agreements and let the tribe develop its own resources by taking control of surface and subsurface leasing.

The bill would also facilitate the process for tribes to gain access to different energy sources.

Included in the measure are calls for energy education and grants to encourage energy development, efficiency and economic development. The bill also encourages the use of wood, left over from federal forest management, as an energy source.

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, was one of the cosponsors of SB 2132, which was introduced in March by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming. A similar proposal from Barrasso in 2011 got out of committee but died in the full Senate.

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