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Senate Passes Bill Expediting Fossil Fuel Extraction on Native American Lands

Indigenous peoples’ rights nearly did not make it into the global deal signed at the United Nations COP21 climate summit in Paris, serving as one of the more controversial sticking points in the road toward the signing of the Paris Agreement. Eventually, though, the Paris Agreement came to include five mentions of the importance of protecting indigenous rights with regards to climate change.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate has decided to grant indigenous people a different set of rights altogether: the right to have oil and coal extracted from their ancestral lands in a streamlined manner. The rights to do so would be granted in a bill thatpassed unanimously in the Senate two days before the Paris Agreement.

Sponsored by U.S. Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), the Indian Tribal Energy Development and Self-Determination Act Amendments of 2015’s (S.209) passage in the Senate received no media coverage besides a press release disseminatedby Barrasso’s office and by the office of co-sponsor U.S. Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT).

In an opinion piece published in November by Indian Country Today, Barrasso lauded the bill for “empower[ing] tribes to develop their own energy resources” and “streamlin[ing]…approvals of many energy development transactions.”

“This will help to empower—not hinder—tribal self-governance and prosperity,” reads the article. “This legislation will empower tribes to develop their own energy resources on their lands. It will also streamline certain approvals of many energy development transactions, such as business agreements, right-of-ways and leases on Indian lands.”

Follow the Money

The Senate bill’s passage came in the aftermath of a years-long lobbying effort by corporate interests, led in the forefront by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber published a letter praising the bill after it passed in the Senate and also deployed a team of lobbyists to advocate for the bill in all three quarters of 2015 and all four quarters of 2014 for the bill’s predecessor, S.2132.

“S. 209 would be an important step in furthering efforts by Congress to encourage economic development throughout Indian Country,” the letter reads. “The Chamber urges the Senate and House committees of jurisdiction to work together towards a compromise as expeditiously as practicable.”

Environmental advocacy and legal group Earthjustice lobbied against the bill.

Tester has $15,001 to $50,000 worth of coal utility giant American Electric Power’s stock holdings and both Testerand Barrasso have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry throughout their political careers.

After passing on December 11, the Senate referred S. 209 to House Natural Resources Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee for votes. House Natural Resources Committee chairman, U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) — who has taken more from the oil and gas industry in campaign contributions than any other sector throughout his political career — appears eager to help pass the bill.

I am pleased the Senate has followed suit and acted on legislation to alleviate barriers that currently prevent Native Americans from harnessing resources on their own land,” Bishop said in a December 11 press release. “I look forward to working with the Senate to get a final package on the President’s desk.”

Congressional session has closed for 2015 and the White House has not yet signaled if it would veto the bill if it arrived at its desk when session begins anew in 2016.

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Steve Horn is a freelance investigative journalist and Research Fellow at DeSmogBlog, where this piece first appeared.

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