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Will Trump Privatize Tribal
Lands For Oil, Gas, Coal?

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Advisors To The President-Elect Are Pondering The Move In Order To Take The Lands Out Of The Public Sphere And Thereby Limit Regulations, But Others Say Such A Move Will Threaten Sovereignty

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By Valerie Volcovici
Reuters Media Express

Dec. 9, 2016, WASHINGTON Native American reservations cover just 2 percent of the United States, but they may contain about a fifth of the nation’s oil and gas, along with vast coal reserves.

Now, a group of advisors to President-elect Donald Trump on Native American issues wants to free those resources from what they call a suffocating federal bureaucracy that holds title to 56 million acres of tribal lands, two chairmen of the coalition told Reuters in exclusive interviews.

The group proposes to put those lands into private ownership - a politically explosive idea that could upend more than century of policy designed to preserve Indian tribes on U.S.-owned reservations, which are governed by tribal leaders as sovereign nations.

The tribes have rights to use the land, but they do not own it. They can drill it and reap the profits, but only under regulations that are far more burdensome than those applied to private property.

"We should take tribal land away from public treatment," said Markwayne Mullin, a Republican U.S. Representative from Oklahoma and a Cherokee tribe member who is co-chairing Trump’s Native American Affairs Coalition. "As long as we can do it without unintended consequences, I think we will have broad support around Indian country."

Trump’s transition team did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Members of an indigenous peoples support group called RAICES perform a blessing ceremony as protesters gather outside before Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump holds a rally with supporters in Albuquerque, New Mexico, U.S. on May 24, 2016.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

The plan dovetails with Trump’s larger aim of slashing regulation to boost energy production. It could deeply divide Native American leaders, who hold a range of opinions on the proper balance between development and conservation.

The proposed path to deregulated drilling - privatizing reservations - could prove even more divisive. Many Native Americans view such efforts as a violation of tribal self-determination and culture.

"Our spiritual leaders are opposed to the privatization of our lands, which means the commoditization of the nature, water, air we hold sacred," said Tom Goldtooth, a member of both the Navajo and the Dakota tribes who runs the Indigenous Environmental Network. "Privatization has been the goal since colonization – to strip Native Nations of their sovereignty."

Reservations governed by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs are intended in part to keep Native American lands off the private real estate market, preventing sales to non-Indians. An official at the Bureau of Indian Affairs did not respond to a request for comment.


The legal underpinnings for reservations date to treaties made between 1778 and 1871 to end wars between indigenous Indians and European settlers. Tribal governments decide how land and resources are allotted among tribe members.

Leaders of Trump’s coalition did not provide details of how they propose to allocate ownership of the land or mineral rights - or to ensure they remained under Indian control.

One idea is to limit sales to non-Indian buyers, said Ross Swimmer, a co-chair on Trump’s advisory coalition and an ex-chief of the Cherokee nation who worked on Indian affairs in the Reagan administration.

"It has to be done with an eye toward protecting sovereignty," he said.

$1.5 TRILLION IN RESERVES
The Trump-appointed coalition’s proposal comes against a backdrop of broader environmental tensions on Indian reservations, including protests against a petroleum pipeline by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and their supporters in North Dakota.

On Sunday, amid rising opposition, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Sunday said it had denied a permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline project, citing a need to explore alternate routes.

The Trump transition team has expressed support for the pipeline, however, and his administration could revisit the decision once it takes office in January.

A service truck drives past an oil well on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota, U.S. on November 1, 2014.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

Tribes and their members could potentially reap vast wealth from more easily tapping resources beneath reservations. The Council of Energy Resource Tribes, a tribal energy consortium, estimated in 2009 that Indian energy resources are worth about $1.5 trillion. In 2008, the Bureau of Indian Affairs testified before Congress that reservations contained about 20 percent of untapped oil and gas reserves in the U.S.

Deregulation could also benefit private oil drillers including Devon Energy Corp, Occidental Petroleum, BP and others that have sought to develop leases on reservations through deals with tribal governments. Those companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.


Trump's transition team commissioned the 27-member Native American Affairs Coalition to draw up a list of proposals to guide his Indian policy on issues ranging from energy to health care and education.

The backgrounds of the coalition’s leadership are one sign of its pro-drilling bent. At least three of four chair-level members have links to the oil industry. Mullin received about eight percent of his campaign funding over the years from energy companies, while co-chair Sharon Clahchischilliage - a Republican New Mexico State Representative and Navajo tribe member - received about 15 percent from energy firms, according to campaign finance disclosures reviewed by Reuters.

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