Interior Fast-Track Approval of Renewable Energy Development At Risk
Tribal Culture Must Be Integrated Into the Decision-Making Process for Energy Projects
Many Native communities, like the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT), argue that expediting the review and approval process for renewable energy projects undermines the time needed to take tribal concerns into consideration.
A recent report "Saving Fast Track: Alternative Energy Futures at Stake" by James A. Kent, a global social ecologist, and John Ryan, a regional economist, underscores that a major focus of new projects should be ensuring "tribes have some reasonable prospect of emerging with their ancestral lands and spiritual life intact, in a realigned political, social, cultural and economic environment that benefits them directly."
The purpose of the report was to highlight the difficulties encountered with the 17 renewable energy projects given "priority status" by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in 2012, including nine solar, six wind and two geothermal projects across six Southwestern states. The fast-track list was created in collaboration with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service.
The federal departments devised the expedited approval process to speed up the oftentimes lengthy environmental review and public participation process, with an emphasis on early consultation.
But the process has had unexpected impacts on local residents, including many southwestern tribes, and their environment, the report states. Several tribes expressed frustration that their issues and concerns have not been a consideration during the approval process. Many tribes have reacted by leveraging lawsuits against the fast-track projects, charging that they violate sacred sites and lands.
For example, the BLM approved the $1 billion Genesis Solar Energy Development Project, located 200 miles east of Los Angeles, California, before holding “nation-to-nation” consultations with the CRIT, despite the fact that the project affects thousands of the federally-recognized tribe's 264,000 acres. (The CRIT is comprised of four tribes: the Mohave, Chemehuevi, Hopi and Navajo.)
Additionally, the BLM relied heavily on the developer’s archeologists in determining where on BLM lands to build the projects. But cultural artifacts not accounted for in the original studies were later discovered.
In response, the CRIT sued to halt the project, using the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).
The report concludes that the fast-track procedure's objective became a speedy approval, "and maintaining the relationships with tribal members became secondary."
"To best address this crisis from expanding, the tribal way of life has to be recognized and integrated into the decision-making arena," Kent and Ryan stated. "When new projects are planned anywhere near tribal land, the affected tribes must be engaged in the initial project planning phases so future issues can be avoided."