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Tribal leader tells Congress of fracking worry

May 8, 2012 - By Martin Reed, Staff Writer

Eastern Shoshone Business Council co-chairman Wes Martel told a congressional group that tribes need a stronger role in regulating energy development, which includes the controversial extraction practice of hydraulic fracturing.

In testimony last month, Martel addressed the House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs concerning the impact on tribes from the Bureau of Land Management's hydraulic fracturing rules.

Martel told the 12-member subcommittee about the tribes' doubt toward the federal agency's ability to regulate energy development while preventing harmful effects on the environment.

"Our worry at Wind River is that BLM has shown that they cannot bring about compliance with existing policies and statutes," Martel said, according to a transcript of his testimony.

"How are they going to enforce a whole new set of rules that requires additional oversight, report review and monitoring? We believe a more enhanced regulatory role for the Tribes is part of the answer," Martel said.

Martel spoke on one of three panels that were arranged to make comments and answer questions about the bureau's draft rule on hydraulic fracturing on public lands.

"The proposed rule could drive oil and gas operators from Indian lands and deprive historically impoverished tribes of a needed source of private investment, tribal royalty revenues and high-wage jobs," according to a statement from the subcommittee about the meeting.

Concerns about hydraulic fracturing reached fever pitch in December when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released test results that pointed to a likely connection between the gas extracting process and pollutants in groundwater in an area several miles east of Pavillion.

Hydraulic fracturing is the practice of injecting various liquid substances into wells at high pressures to extract gas.

In his testimony, Martel urged the subcommittee to keep environmental concerns in mind while allowing energy development on tribal lands to continue.

"The main goal should not be how quickly we can get permits approved but how do we support safe and responsible development," Martel said.

"The rules as proposed could slow development, but for those Tribes who want to protect water and land from contamination, there are provisions in the proposed rules that will allow for transparency, assessment, evaluation and monitoring to minimize degradation," Martel said.

Tribes should have more weight in development of rules and regulation that affect development on their lands, he said.

"The lack of meaningful consultation with Tribes by the BLM has eliminated discussions that should have addressed assisting Tribes in becoming self-regulating through" an area of the Federal Oil and Gas Royalty Management Act of 1982 known as Section 202, Martel said.

His suggestion included inserting language "that would provide clear information regarding drilling practices and procedures and assist tribes in becoming stewards of their own resources."

"Helping Tribes to acquire the technical and administrative capacity would uphold tribal sovereignty and treaty rights and allow tribes to take their rightful place in contributing to the energy security of this country," he said.

Martel cited the Indian Minerals Development Act of 1982 that was adopted by Congress and allows tribes to develop various types of agreements aside from the standard Bureau of Indian Affairs lease for development of natural resources.

"Thirty-one years later, most agreements being signed are still a form of standard BIA lease where minimum royalties are realized, no negotiation terms are present, and for the most part, tribes have been unable to develop comprehensive energy departments," Martel said.

The standard BIA leases allow entities from outside jurisdictions "to intrude on tribal assessable valuation which diminishes return to tribes and inhibits ability to improve and upgrade governmental programs, services and infrastructure," Martel said.

"Triple taxation is the norm on many reservations, which inhibits the economic life of producing fields," he said. "I really think if Congress is going to help us with mineral development that you need to fix this double taxation problem and get rid of this disincentive."

With the fracking issue, Martel said he wants to see more done "by an authority with some regulatory power."

"In our spiritual lodges and ceremonies water is deemed a 'sacred gift from the Creator' requiring great care and respect," he said.

"While jobs and revenue are important, for most Indian people there are things far more important than money. We cannot forsake the blood and bones of our ancestors by desecrating the 'Water of Life,'" he said.