Interpretation Restrictions must legally mandate a decrease in the quantity produced – regulations are distinct


Changing the Secretary’s approval process solves the whole case—spurs wind development and balances self-determination with the trust doctrine



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Changing the Secretary’s approval process solves the whole case—spurs wind development and balances self-determination with the trust doctrine


Judith V. Royster 12, Co-Director – Native American Law Center @ University of Tulsa, “Tribal Energy Development: Renewables and the Problem of the Current Statutory Structures,” March, 31 Stan. Envtl. L.J. 91

Nonetheless, there are steps that can be taken to tighten up the approval process and make it friendlier to renewable energy development. The two amendments to the IMDA proposed here [*133] would provide that the Secretary's failure to act within the time allotted constitutes approval, and that in determining whether a minerals agreement is in the tribe's best interest, the Secretary will defer to the tribe's decision. Under the IMDA, the Secretary has 180 days to approve or disapprove a minerals agreement, or 60 days after compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), whichever is later. n189 The statute specifically provides that the Secretary's failure to meet the deadline is enforceable by a mandamus action in federal court. n190 Making the Secretary's deadline mandatory is useful, but authorizing enforcement by court action is not. Civil suits proceed slowly through the federal courts, and it is unlikely that a writ of mandamus would be issued before the Secretary reached a decision on the minerals agreement. Waiting two years for the court's decision is no better than waiting two years for the Secretary's. A better approach would borrow from the proposed statutory amendments to the TERA process. The proposed TERA amendments would replace a provision giving the Secretary 270 days to approve a TERA, with a provision that 271 days after the tribe submits its TERA application, the TERA "shall" become effective if the Secretary has not disapproved it. n191 A similar amendment to the IMDA could provide that 181 days after the tribe submits a proposed minerals agreement, or 61 days after compliance with NEPA, whichever is later, the agreement "shall" take effect if the Secretary has not disapproved it or has not provided the tribe with written findings of the intent to approve or disapprove the agreement. n192 As with the proposed TERA [*134] amendment, this would put substantial additional pressure on the Department of the Interior to act quickly. But the benefit to tribes of knowing whether their minerals agreements have been approved, and being able to implement their agreements within a reasonable time, outweigh those concerns. The second way to streamline the approval process for renewable energy resources is to address the substance of the Secretary's review of mineral agreements. The IMDA provides that the Secretary must determine whether a proposed agreement "is in the best interest of the Indian tribe." n193 In so doing, the Secretary "shall consider, among other things, the potential economic return to the tribe; the potential environmental, social, and cultural effects on the tribe; and provisions for resolving disputes that may arise between the parties to the agreement." n194 The statute expressly provides, however, that the Secretary is not responsible for preparing any studies regarding "environmental, socioeconomic, or cultural effects" other than the environmental studies required by NEPA. n195 The regulations, on the other hand, require that the Secretary determine both that the minerals agreement is in the tribe's best interest and that any adverse cultural, social, or environmental impacts do not outweigh the benefits of the agreement. n196 The "best interest" standard is further defined as requiring "the Secretary [to] consider any relevant factor, including, but not limited to: economic considerations, such as date of lease or minerals agreement expiration; probable financial effects on the Indian mineral owner; need for change in the terms of the existing minerals agreement; marketability of mineral products; and potential environmental, social and cultural effects." n197 The regulations further specify that the "best interest" standard is based on information supplied by the parties "and any other [*135] information considered relevant by the Secretary." n198 That information may include comparisons to other contracts or offers for similar resources, "insofar as that information is readily available." n199 These standards, derived from judicial determinations that the Secretary must consider all relevant factors in reviewing mineral leases under the IMLA, n200 place considerable decision-making power with the Secretary. During the rulemaking process, in fact, the Department of the Interior rejected a commenter's suggestion that minerals agreements should be approved if the agreements were in compliance with law. The Department noted that the law itself "allows the Secretary the discretion to weigh relevant factors and requires the Secretary to make, on the basis of the Secretary's judgement, a best interest determination." n201 At the time the IMDA was enacted in 1982, federal Indian policy had only recently focused on tribal self-determination, n202 and Indian tribes were still emerging from the uncertainties and destruction of the termination era. n203 The Department of the Interior had experience with considering all relevant factors in the approval of IMLA leases, and carried that standard into the new world of minerals agreements. It took twelve years for the Department to issue IMDA regulations, but the regulations again reflected the central role of the Secretary and the importance of the Secretary's judgment call. In the 1980s and even early 1990s, the Secretary's stringent oversight may have been justified by the imbalance of knowledge and bargaining power between tribes and energy companies. But nearly twenty years have passed since the regulations were [*136] promulgated in 1994. Indian tribes have thirty years of experience with IMDA minerals agreements, and many of the energy tribes have become sophisticated negotiators of development deals. Certainly tribes are the best determiners of cultural and social impacts, and often of the economic impacts as well. In light of those factors, the standards for approval of IMDA agreements are due for amendment. Amending the statute itself to revisit the appropriate factors may be the best choice, but a simpler and perhaps quicker fix is also available. The Department could amend the regulations to reflect modern realities. Similar to the best interests determination in the regulations for agricultural and other surface leases, the IMDA regulations could provide that in reviewing an IMDA minerals agreement, the Secretary will defer to the tribe's determination that the agreement is in its best interest, to the maximum extent possible. n204 Although the conditional "maximum extent possible" language preserves the Secretary's ultimate authority under the statute, the regulation would ensure that the Secretary will undertake the minerals agreement review process with due respect for the tribe's decision. Even if a deferential review is current practice, embedding it in the regulations strengthens the tribe's role in the decision making process. VII. Conclusion Renewable energy resources are taking on increased importance for tribal economies. While these resources are abundant in Indian country, the federal statutory authority for their development is dispersed and often problematic. Mineral development statutes may or may not apply; other statutes not originally intended for energy development fill the gap, but generally confine tribes to a passive role in renewables development. The recent energy statute solves many of the problems with the other approaches, but creates a process that is [*137] complex and expensive enough to discourage most tribes from using it. Recent bills would tweak the energy statute and propose broader leasing authority, but none addresses the overarching problem of providing tribes with a way to take an active role in the development of renewable resources without undue expense or federal oversight. The amendments to the IMDA and its regulations proposed here also do not solve that overarching problem entirely. They are intended to suggest steps in the direction of greater tribal self-determination in renewable energy development. They would free tribes to take more active roles in renewable energy projects, while preserving tribes' ability to use the variety of other available statutory approaches. And they would rein in the secretarial approval power by providing that federal inaction benefits the tribes and by reframing the best interests analysis. Under these proposals, Indian tribes could more easily develop their renewable energy resources, and do so with more direct say in the development itself.



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