Between 2008 and 2013, unemployment for American Indians never once dipped below 10 percent, the highest rates for any group in all the Midwest, Northern Plains, and Southwest. And nearly one in three single-race American Indians live in poverty, according to the United States Census Bureau.
But America’s natural gas boom is offering new hope to these struggling communities. An estimated 20 percent of all the nation’s oil and gas reserves reside on tribal lands. The federal government must help American Indians make the most of these resources.
Nationwide, the energy sector has created jobs even as the general economy falters. Since the start of the Great Recession, employment at natural gas and oil fields has grown by 40 percent.
Already, tribal leaders who have leased and developed their natural resources have seen immediate and significant job creation. Overall, oil, gas and coal development is expected to result in the creation of more than 96,000 jobs on tribal lands.
Take, for instance, the Blackfeet reservation in Montana, where unemployment has been as high as 70 percent in recent years. The tribe has collected around $30 million in leases and bonus payments. That money can be reinvested to build a more stable future.
The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs has noted that income from energy and minerals constitutes “the largest revenue source generated from Trust lands.” The agency estimates that royalty income among tribal mineral owners will exceed $1 billion this year. And the Council of Energy Resource Tribes has estimated that tribal lands are home to reserves valued at nearly $1.5 trillion.
For many tribes, energy development doesn’t just mean economic development; it’s also an opportunity for empowerment and independence. In the words of Tex Hall, the tribal chairman of North Dakota’s Three Affiliated Tribes, energy development can bring “sovereignty by the barrel.”
Natural gas and oil development can strengthen American Indian communities while upholding their traditional values, as Colorado’s Southern Ute tribe has demonstrated. The Tribe carefully consulted with scientists, lawyers, auditors and other leading energy experts, and then established the Red Willow Energy business, which it runs independently.
Levi Pesata, president of New Mexico’s Jicarilla Apache Nation, recently explained to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs why resource development doesn’t need to come at the expense of stewardship of tribal lands. “We have been involved in the oil and gas industry for about 60 years,” Pesata said, “… the Nation has been diligent in designating and protecting pristine areas as well as sacred sites and spiritual and culturally sensitive areas from disturbance.”
But despite the extraordinary opportunity oil and natural-gas development offers to American Indians, only 12 percent of tribal lands with potential reserves have so far been developed.
A tangled bureaucracy accounts for much of the problem. On non-tribal lands, the number of steps companies must complete to start exploring can, at times, be counted on a single hand — whereas on tribal lands, they must wrangle with four federal agencies and a jaw-dropping 49 separate regulatory steps.
Such obstacles are reprehensible, especially in the context of overwhelming Native American poverty. The federal government must do more to partner with tribal communities, engaging them to develop energy resources in a respectful and responsible manner.
Chris Faulkner is chief executive officer of Breitling Energy Corporation and author of the recent book, “The Fracking Truth.” He is also the producer of the upcoming documentary, “Breaking Free: The Shale Rock Revolution.”