Obama administration flips on tribal sovereignty after ‘historic’ Indian country visit


By Rob Port | Watchdog.org North Dakota Bureau

SUPPORTING SOVEREIGNTY: Rep. Kevin Cramer, a Republican from North Dakota, questions a representative of the Obama administration who testified before the House Natural Resources Committee in opposition to legislation giving Native American tribes more autonomy in regulating oil and gas development.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — After President Obama touted his dedication to the “nation-to-nation” relationship with Native American tribes during a rare visit by a sitting president to Indian country, his administration went before a House committee to oppose legislation giving tribes more autonomy in dealing with oil and gas development.

“I know that throughout history, the United States often didn’t give the nation-to-nation relationship the respect that it deserved,” Obama said earlier this month during a brief address in Cannon Ball, N.D., on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. “So I promised when I ran to be a president who’d change that — a president who honors our sacred trust, and who respects your sovereignty, and upholds treaty obligations, and who works with you in a spirit of true partnership, in mutual respect, to give our children the future that they deserve.”

But a week after those remarks, members of Obama’s administration showed up before the House Natural Resources Committee to oppose legislation introduced by Rep. Kevin Cramer, a Republican from North Dakota, which would allow tribes to opt-in to a categorical exclusion from the National Environmental Policy Act to speed the development of gas-gathering pipelines.

That’s an important issue in North Dakota where in recent months the burn-off of excess natural gas produced during oil extraction — a process called “flaring” — has soared over 30 percent. But that statewide rate is inflated by the flaring on federal lands.

On the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, home to the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara nations, over 46 percent of gas produced is flared with the oil industry and local tribal leaders blame that high rate on an arduous federal permitting process for gas capture infrastructure.

Cramer’s legislation seeks to let tribes bypass some of the federal red tape, but during a hearing last week the congressman was surprised to hear opposition from the Obama administration.

“I was just with the President of the United States on a North Dakota reservation a week ago where he talked about honoring sovereignty and here the administration seems to be going against that very concept of sovereignty for the tribe,” Cramer told Michael Nedd, the assistant director for minerals and realty management for the Bureau of Land Management, during questioning before the House Natural Resources Committee.

In response, Nedd argued that giving tribes more control over the process would “inject confusion.”

“Congressman, what I can say again that the secretary’s authority under the Indian Minerals Leasing Act certainly allows the BLM to work with the tribes in managing those trust lands,” Nedd said. “In working through the tribes with consultation, the BLM certainly incorporates their input into that. And so the administration feels again they have enough authority to proceed to conduct the work on the authority Congress has given them. This bill would just inject confusion and the administration position is that we they have enough authority to do that.”

You can reach Rob Port at rport@watchdog.org