McKosato: Tribes tap into energy

Posted: Saturday, April 13, 2013 9:00 pm

As Americans, we love energy. In fact, the U.S. is the second-highest consumer in terms of total per-capita use behind China, who passed us just last summer. It’s no wonder that the world’s largest business sector is energy. So where does Indian Country fit in?

That’s the purpose for an upcoming conference June 10-12 at Sandia Resort and Casino called “Developing Tribal Energy Resources and Economies.” Primary topic areas of the conference are tribes’ right-of-way negotiations with major utility companies, self-generation of energy for tribal communities, and deep shale exploration and development.

It’s been analyzed by several difference sources (including the Bureau of Indian Affair and the Department of Energy) that tribal lands make up approximately 5 percent of the land mass in the U.S., but hold up to 15 percent to 20 percent of the nation’s energy resources. Tribal lands are a thorough way for major utility companies.

“There’s billions of dollars in transfers that cross Indian lands in the form of natural gas pipelines and electricity transmission lines,” said Roger Fragua, a citizen of Jemez Pueblo and principal of COTA Holdings LLC. “But we can’t access these lines, so we have wood and propane. We’d like to tap into these lines, and we’ve been negotiating.

“Based on a lot of hard work that tribes have done here in New Mexico, by negotiating these right of ways, we’ve turned them into leases, not right of ways,” added Fragua, who also serves as one of four chairpersons of the National Indian Gaming Association.

According to Fragua, the Indian gaming industry consists of 225 tribes that bring in $27 billion. The second-biggest cost for these tribes is energy. So, self-generation of energy makes a whole lot of sense. Tribes are taking a very proactive approach with their tribal casinos, their tribal clinics, their schools and tribal administration buildings. Tribal energy portfolios consist of natural gas, biomass, hydropower, solar, wind — tribes are creating power in a very sound environmental way, the right way.

“Yakima Power [in Washington State] has done a fabulous job with self-generation,” Fragua said. “The Warm Springs tribe in Oregon is doing a wonderful job; the Navajo Nation Utility Authority. There are a number of tribal utilities who are doing a really good job of delivering service to their own people. We’re really proud of their success.

“We don’t want to play a passive royalty role,” said Fragua, co-founder of the conference, along with New Mexico Community Capital. “Those days are over. What’s good for the tribes is good for America. Developing tribal energy sources is a very positive thing for tribal communities and for the country.”

The billion-dollar question is who’s going to provide the financing for tribal energy projects? Is it going to be major U.S. energy and oil companies, and if so, what about tribal sovereignty?

“We can develop tribe-to-tribe partnerships in a creative way. So we want, first and foremost, for investment dollars to come from tribes. We’re working very hard to organize [the conference] in a way that will allow networking opportunities between tribes, Alaska Native corporations and First Nations of Canada,” Fragua said.

“The second tier, obviously, will come from the U.S. corporate structure. We want to bridge the gap between the energy sector and Indian tribes. There’s a very long history between Indian tribes and the U.S. energy sector, and it’s not a very pretty one from the Indian perspective.

“A third tier of financing could come from abroad. There’s been talk about offshore dollars coming into the country, and tribes are getting very proactive about how to deal with the Asian community. There seems to be a good fit in terms of the Asian dollar and the Asian markets and Indian tribes. There’s a lot of interest in that area,” Fragua said. “We hope to facilitate that discussion as well.”

Harlan McKosato is Sauk/Ioway and Director of NDN Productions.