Poor BIA management has hindered tribal energy development, GAO says

The US Bureau of Indian Affairs does not have 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, the Government Accountability Office said.

The US Department of the Interior agency also faces limitations and does not have a documented process or the data needed to track its review and response times, as called for in Executive Order 1360’s implementation guidance, the congressional watchdog service noted in a report it released on June 15.

“[BIA] therefore cannot ensure transparency in its review of energy-related documents,” GAO said. “These shortcomings can increase costs and project development times, resulting in missed development opportunities, lost revenue, and jeopardized viability of projects.”

It said that according to a tribal official, BIA’s review of some of its energy-related documents took as long as 8 years. “In the meantime, the tribe estimates it lost more than $95 million in revenue it could have earned from tribal permitting fees, oil and gas severance taxes, and royalties.”

The report also cited missed development opportunities and compromised project viability for wind energy projects resulting from extended review periods. BIA also must contend with limited personnel and jurisdictional overlap with other federal and state regulatory agencies, GAO said.

“Several factors have deterred tribes from seeking tribal energy resource agreements (TERA),” it noted. “These factors include uncertainty about some TERA regulations, costs associated with assuming activities historically conducted by federal agencies, and a complex application process.”

Recommended actions

It recommended that DOI take steps to address data limitations, track its review process, provide clarifying guidance, and evaluate whether grants are effective. GAO said the department generally agreed with most but not all of the recommendations because it is taking other actions to address some data limitations.

“Washington’s poor record-keeping and lack of consistency is slowing down natural resource development for tribes,” said US Senate Indian Affairs Committee Chairman John A. Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who requested the report.

US House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) called GAO’s report “the latest black mark against [BIA].” He said that his committee also would work “to ensure that [DOI] is held to account for this gross mismanagement and neglect toward tribal communities.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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