In recent days, the New Mexico-based Jemez Pueblo tribe has gotten plenty of ink for its plan to build "the first utility-scale solar plant on tribal land." Turns out two Colorado tribes -- the Southern Utes and Ute Mountain Utes, both located in the southwestern corner of the state -- are thinking along the same lines.
"Each of them are very prolific energy tribes in the sense that they are producers of conventional fuels -- both oil and gas," says Roger Fragua, president of Denver-based Cota Holdings, who consults about how to forge partnerships between tribes and the energy industry. "And both are exploring energy from a renewable and energy-efficiency standpoint."
For instance, the Southern Utes are pouring some of the resources they've gleaned from oil and gas to create a biofuel program, Fragua notes -- "and they're also looking at solar in a way that's not limited to their reservation. They're looking at tribe-to-tribe projects out of Colorado, but using the Colorado base and resources in order to leverage money into renewables all across the country."
There's no easy way of calculating the potential for energy development on tribal lands, in Fragua's opinion.
"There are 560 federally recognized Indian tribes across the U.S., and an unnumerated amount of renewable resources. We claim about 20 percent of fossil-fuel resources on tribal lands, but the renewable industry in the United States is fairly new -- and industry has typically ignored Indian country. That's a part of American history people don't usually get the chance to read about."
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"There's a cartographer in Boulder, Jason McMahan of Bolder Geographics," Fragua says. "He produces energy maps of energy infrastructure: pipelines, you name it. And I asked him to produce some maps, and he was puzzled looking at them, because he'd never had the occasion to overlay tribal lands on them before. It became apparent that there were these big gaps, big spaces in-between the infrastructure, and that's because the tribes have historically not been included in the development of the U.S. electrical infrastructure."
This remains the case today, Fragua goes on. Enormous portions of the Navajo nation "don't have access to electricity," he says, "and students in Northern California, living on the Tule Indiana reservation, are doing their homework by kerosene lamps, and they have to use generators to keep their refrigerators going. This is current news, but nobody reports about it."
One reason Fragua believes energy industry types haven't been more aggressive about making deals with tribes is because "there's double taxation going on. The state can tax Indian land, which is like the state of Colorado charging the people in Utah taxes. It's unheard of -- and yet the state can reach over and tax the Southern Utes and Ute Mountain Utes. And that stifles development of renewable resources on tribal lands -- which is why there needs to be a very serious attempt to remove policy barriers and create incentives for corporate America to partner with tribes. The U.S. energy industry doesn't know much about dealing with American Indian tribes, but there's plenty of opportunities out there. That's not to say it doesn't happen, but it's not happening at the rate or the pace we need to really develop renewables in this country.
"All across the country, there are these huge, renewable resources just sitting there, waiting for partnerships to be developed. Tribes, by and large, don't have the technical experience to develop their own renewable resources -- and the Indian population is growing 3 percent a year. We're doubling our tribal population every 25 to thirty years; we're growing faster than the Latino population. So we need energy for our own community development -- but we can also export it to non-Indian lands to help meet American needs for renewable resources."