National Energy Corridors May Impact Navajo Reservation Land

By Kathy Helms

WINDOW ROCK, Arizona, November 16, 2005 (ENS) - U.S. government plans to designate national energy corridors on federal lands in 11 western states surrounding the Navajo Nation, appear to be building toward a legal takeover of Indian land through rights-of-way agreements the tribe could be forced to accept.

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 enacted in August directs the secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Energy and the Interior to designate federal land in 11 western states for oil, gas and hydrogen pipelines, and electricity transmission and distribution facilities, or energy corridors.

The federal agencies must amend their land use plans to designate the series of corridors on federal lands in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming and have been conducting hearings on the issue, though none in Navajo Indian Country.

map Federal lands are a combination of public domain lands, including state property and lands administered by agencies such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which holds 56 million acres in trust status on behalf of Indian nations and individuals.

Federal land under Interior stewardship amounts to 437 million acres. The U.S. Forest Service manages another 192 million acres - including Coconino National Forest where the sacred San Francisco Peaks are located. The Department of Defense oversees 25 million acres on 425 major installations. The feds also control 1.76 billion acres of the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf.

Designating energy corridors as required by Section 368 of the three month old Energy Policy Act could significantly impact the environment, the federal agencies said, prompting them to publish a notice of intent to prepare the West-Wide Energy Corridor Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement in the September 28 edition of the Federal Register. Deadline for comment is November 28.

The Department of Energy and the Bureau of Land Management, co-lead agencies in the effort, with the Forest Service acting as a cooperating agency, held a series of public meetings in late October and earlier this month in Denver, Albuquerque, Salt Lake City, Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Helena, Montana. Meetings also were conducted in Boise, Idaho; Sacramento, California; Las Vegas; Portland, Oregon; Phoenix and Seattle.

The Navajo Nation holds rights to a wealth of oil, gas, coal, uranium and other minerals - as well as hundreds of thousands of acre feet of precious water needed to sustain an ambitious energy corridor.

Navajo Nation Left in the Dark

Though the proposed corridors completely surround the Navajo Nation, Resources Committee Chairman George Arthur said November 9 that committee members have not been told anything about it and have not been involved in federal discussions. Resources has oversight on issues pertaining to lease permits for oil, gas and mineral development on Navajoland.

The Office of Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. has yet to respond to queries from "The Independent" regarding whether the Nation has been consulted. Shirley

Joe Shirley, Jr. is President of the Navajo Nation. (Photo courtesy Fort Lewis College)
Resources' Arthur said, "In as far as the U.S. energy corridor is concerned, at least for us as oversight on that part of the discussion, we have never been apprised of it."

"The Navajo Nation Resources Committee has never been at the table, has never participated in any shape or form in any of these discussions. Furthermore, if there is such a discussion, you've got to keep in mind that the Nation is a sovereign state. Whether people realize it or not, everything stops at the border."

The Navajo Nation is still in the process of developing its own energy policy which would reflect the objectives and mission statement of the Nation in regard to energy development in local, national, and international arenas, according to Arthur.

One of the greatest concerns in the designation of energy corridors is the vulnerability of the Eastern Agency of the Navajo Nation because of the land structure and the relationship that it has with the federal government with the trust responsibility.


Navajo Nation Resources Committee Chairman George Arthur (Photo courtesy Navajo Nation Council)
"I guess you could look at it as the Nation is a bigger figure in trust lands than individual allottees, so the vulnerability of individual allottees in respect to the pressure and impact of federal regulations and big corporations coming in is very open. They're very vulnerable," Arthur said.

Uranium mining companies already are leasing land in Church Rock and Crownpoint within the Eastern Agency, despite the Nation's ban on uranium mining and processing passed in April by the 20th Navajo Nation Council.

President Shirley signed an Executive Order November 4 prohibiting Navajo Nation employees from communicating with uranium mining companies without first receiving guidance from the Nation's Department of Justice.

Shirley said the move was necessary because some companies have been willfully disrespecting the Dine Natural Resources Protection Act of 2005 which banned uranium mining and processing.

Government Agencies Issue Energy Memo

A memorandum of understanding (MOU) was signed in August 2001 among a host of federal agencies - Department of Energy, Department of the Interior, Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency, Council on Environmental Quality, and members of the Western Governors' Association. The MOU was to establish cooperation between western states and the federal government to address the West's growing energy problems.

An August 2002 letter to Vice President Dick Cheney from then Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and Interior Secretary Gale Norton advised that an interagency task force, the National Energy Policy Development Group, had been formed to address issues associated with "renewable energy" production on federal lands.


Tsezhin Bii' area of the Navajo Nation. (Photo by Margaret Hiza Redsteer courtesy USGS)
"Our response to the national Energy Policy reflects a commitment to increase our energy security by expanding the use of indigenous resources on Federal lands, while accelerating the protection of our environment," Abraham and Norton wrote.

The Energy Policy Act co-sponsored by New Mexico Senators Pete Domenici, a Republican, and Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat, contains a section on energy right-of-way corridors on federal land. Section 368 directs the secretaries of the various agencies to ensure that additional corridors for oil, gas, and hydrogen pipelines and electricity transmission and distribution facilities on federal land "are promptly identified and designated as necessary." The secretaries also are instructed to "expedite applications."

El Paso Natural Gas, now in trespass on Navajoland after the two entities failed to reach agreement on the value of El Paso's right-of-way renewal, has teamed with a Washington, DC based lobby group, the Fair Access to Energy Coalition (FAIR), to "ensure the movement of energy across tribal lands on reasonable terms."

Other members of FAIR include - the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, the Association of Commerce and Industry of New Mexico, Arizona State Chamber of Commerce, Arizonans for Electric Choice and Competition, California State Chamber of Commerce, and Enterprise, which had its right-of-way agreement approved last month on the same day El Paso's expired.

The Enterprise contract is worth approximately $23 million over the next 20 years for right-of-way access across 318 miles of fee land. The tribe is seeking $400 million from El Paso for its 900 mile stretch of pipeline right-of-way and associated projects.

Not in Tune with the Times

El Paso representatives were in Window Rock November 10 hoping to get an extension from the Resources Committee. They failed to get on the agenda but will try again later this month.

El Paso has asked Interior Secretary Norton for an opinion regarding right-of-way status on Indian land. El Paso contends the federal government actually owns the land and that it is just held in trust for the Navajo Nation.

The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association is seeking Domenici's support in amending the Indian Right of Way statute to allow the Secretary of the Interior to grant pipeline rights-of-way over tribal lands despite objections by the affected tribes.

Resources' Arthur said, "In the discussion of the rights-of-way ... it's been very difficult because they perceive the Nation as not having to have been in tune with today's market value and the industry as a whole."

"But I think that people in the industry need to realize that we've been down that road, and we're not going to go down the same road twice and be expected to conclude our business settlement on the same terms and conditions as it was in the 1980s or the mid-1990s."

{Published in cooperation with the "Gallup Independent."