GAO Gives BIA ‘F’ for Hindering Sovereignty and Energy

Mark Fogarty

Congress has taken a look at the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ stewardship of American Indian energy developments — and has given the agency failing grades for both bad management and hindering sovereignty.

Congress’ investigative arm, the General Accountability Office, named BIA’s “management shortcomings” as a major factor that has “hindered Indian energy development. “These shortcomings can increase costs and project development times, resulting in missed development opportunities, lost revenue, and jeopardized viability of projects,” GAO charged.

One tribe lost $95 million in revenue due to agency inaction over eight years. Another had to abandon a project due to BIA delays. A third saw data gathered for a project become outdated after three years of review before approval, the report detailed.

Sovereignty has also been hindered, as the report to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs indicates, rapping BIA for not providing support for a program that allows tribes to enter into energy leases without review and approval by the Department of the Interior. A 2005 law gives Interior the authority to provide grants to tribes for these programs, called TERAs (Tribal Energy Resource Agreements). “However, no tribe has entered into a TERA,” it pointed out.

GAO’s recommendations include  “Interior (should) take steps to address data limitations, track its review process, provide clarifying guidance, and evaluate the effectiveness of grants.”

The investigators noted that Interior “generally agreed with most but not all of the recommendations because it is taking other actions to address some data limitations.” However, “GAO continues to believe that its recommendations are valid.”

Indian energy resources “hold significant potential for development, but remain largely undeveloped,” GAO noted.

Data remains a significant problem. “BIA does not have the data it needs to verify ownership of some Indian oil and gas resources, easily identify resources available for lease, or identify where leases are in effect,” GAO wrote. BIA also “faces staff limitations and does not have a documented process or the data needed to track its review and response times, and therefore it cannot ensure transparency in its review of energy-related documents.”

Kevin K. Washburn, Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs, commented Interior “generally concurs” with the recommendations on the TERA regulations and TEDC (Tribal Energy Development Capacity) grants.

But as for data limitations, he said the department plans to go ahead on its own National Indian Oil and Gas Evaluation Management System (NIOGEMS) which provides methods “to overcome or minimize the TAAMS (Trust Asset Accounting and Management System) tract and lease land description issues” and plans to continue with full deployment of these. And he said the budget for FY 2016 calls for “special rates of pay for certain job types in the Department’s onshore oil and gas related fields” which should help address hiring and skill gap issues.

As far as the sovereignty-boosting TERA agreements, “several factors have deterred tribes from seeking tribal energy resource agreements,” GAO said. “These factors include uncertainty about some TERA regulations, costs associated with assuming activities historically conducted by federal agencies, and a complex application process.

“For instance, one tribe asked the Department of the Interior (Interior) for additional guidance on the activities that would be considered inherently federal functions—a provision included in Interior’s regulations implementing TERA. Interior officials told GAO that the agency has no plans to provide additional clarification.”

Interior’s Office of Indian Energy and Economic Development “provided grants to build tribal energy development capacity to 25 tribes from 2007 through 2013, but the effectiveness of the grants to move tribes closer to demonstrating that they have the capacity to enter into TERAs is unknown,” the Congressional agency wrote.

Federal standardscall for agencies to compare actual performance with planned or expected results and to monitor performance; however, IEED has not tracked how, if it all, the grants have eliminated capacity gaps,” GAO stated.

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