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Clearing the Way for a Native Opportunity in America’s “Sputnik Moment”

SOURCE: AP/Lenny Ignelzi

The Department of Energy estimates that wind power from tribal lands could satisfy 14 percent of total U.S. electricity demand.

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In his remarks at this week’s State of the Union, President Obama called for another ”Sputnik moment,” in which the country would unleash a wave of innovation that creates new industries and millions of new jobs. The plan the president laid out led boldly with the deployment of smart new infrastructure and clean technology that will break our dependence on imported oil while creating jobs and building businesses in our hardest hit American communities.

Today, the National Congress of American Indians delivers their response to the State of the Union, with a report on the state of Indian affairs. The response will highlight numerous issues crucial to Native American tribes, and outline a program for their sovereign nations to participate in this larger vision of investment and economic renewal. Tribal economies have been among the most deeply impacted by the broader economic downturn, and the president’s goals have special resonance to these communities. Critical among the strategies the NCAI is proposing is the commitment to pursue greater economic self-sufficiency and reduce crippling tribal unemployment, as well as a “concerted effort to unleash the potential of Indian energy resources throughout the nation.”

The goals both President Obama and the leaders of the tribal nations have put forth are complementary and mutually beneficial, and deserve special consideration as the nation comes together across regions and party lines to take on the next phase of our economic recovery.

Tribal nations need basic access to jobs, economic opportunity, and even electricity. More than 14 percent of American Indian households in reservations do not have electricity access, and energy on reservations can cost as much as 10 percent above the national average due to a lack of adequate transmission lines. Bitter winters force many families in Indian reservations of the American West to spend up to 70 percent of their total income to heat their homes. Poverty rates on Indian country hover between 27 and 37 percent, and unemployment is as high as 48 percent in some tribes. Clean energy deployment in Indian country can help address many of these woes.

Meanwhile, tribal lands are robust in renewable resources. The Department of Energy estimates that wind power from tribal lands could satisfy 14 percent of total U.S. electricity demand, and the tribal solar resources could generate 4.5 times the total amount of energy needed to power the entire country. Remarkably, however, as of today only one commercial scale renewable energy project operates in all of Indian country.

One of the greatest barriers to deploying clean energy on tribal lands is a longstanding backlog of bureaucratic red tape and outdated laws that cause projects to stall and makes financing cost ineffective. Many tribes are eager to partner with private sector developers in order to build large-scale clean energy projects that are both profitable and respectful of tribal values such as environmental stewardship and keeping families together by providing good jobs on reservations. Many of these sorely needed investments unfortunately never come to fruition because of policy barriers that slow development in Indian country.

In recent weeks President Obama has boldly called for a 21st-century regulatory system that removes outdated government regulations that would otherwise stifle private-sector innovation and slow job growth, making our economy less competitive. Part of this commitment is a government-wide audit of all the rules on the books, and an order to cut where reasonable and necessary. This sentiment is strongly echoed in both chambers of the newly elected 112th Congress, and in both political parties.

The general consensus is that government needs to be more efficient and more effective, keeping our public safety and welfare a priority while removing unnecessary or outdated regulatory overlap and barriers that slows investment, job creation, and economic growth.

Now is the time to apply this logic to Indian country. The administration and policymakers on both sides of the aisle should join forces to remove the bureaucratic barriers to rapid renewable energy deployment, and draw a game plan for reaching multiple goals. Fixing our current policies and offering appropriate incentives can streamline government processes, stimulate a new wave of investment in clean energy, and activate the economic potential of tribal lands, while stimulating the American entrepreneurial and innovation spirit. Moreover, these projects have sizable benefits for both Indian country and the rest of the nation. Here are a few ideas to start with:

  • Promote interagency and federal tribal coordination. Immediate efficiency can be achieved by designating one lead agency to oversee renewable energy projects on tribal lands so that existing processes would be streamlined and duplicative ones eliminated, mitigating a slow and costly process for development. Overlapping responsibilities and potential conflicts between the Department of Interior and the Department of Energy, in particular, need to be resolved. In addition, agencies should establish a tribal advisory body to ensure meaningful tribal participation in this work.
  • Ensure tribal access to the national electricity grid. Tribes must be included in the planning and expansion of our national electricity grid so their projects can “plug in” without unfair added expenses. Tribes should be explicitly represented in national, regional, and state planning processes.
  • Enable tribes to develop their energy resources. Tribes must have access to production and investment tax credits already on the books and available to all other states. Agencies should also eliminate fees that apply only to projects undertaken on tribal lands. These two relatively easy fixes would go a long way toward jumpstarting a renewable energy renaissance in the Native American community.
  • Empower tribes to conduct preliminary clean energy feasibility studies on their lands either internally or through a third party. Presently all preliminary clean energy work, such as land appraisals needs to be done through the Department of the Interior, which creates substantial backlog. Allowing tribes to conduct their own studies either internally or through a third party would expedite this process substantially.
  • Provide smart financing incentives for tribal projects. Energy Secretary Steven Chu has already begun championing a process to promote tribal energy development with financing to support the evaluation, development, and deployment of energy efficiency and renewable energy projects on tribal lands through the Tribal Energy Program. These programs should be enhanced to provide valuable start-up funds for projects that will have multiple co-benefits and pay dividends many times over.

Today, the tribes are ready and willing to be key contributors to this nation’s “Sputnik moment.” Part of this effort will include our government removing barriers that slow industry and innovation, and introducing smart policies that unleash the creative and entrepreneurial spirit that has made American the world power it is today. Another equally important part of our economic recovery will depend on how well we utilize our domestic resources and activate the full potential of our human capital–especially those communities that have been hit hardest by the recession. A bipartisan effort to cut through the red tape will clear the way for them to thrive and strengthen their people, and thus make America as a whole stronger.

Van Jones and Bracken Hendricks are Senior Fellows and Jorge Madrid is a Research Associate for the Energy Policy Team at the Center for American Progress.

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