Indian Energy Development:

Additional Actions by Federal Agencies Are Needed to Overcome Factors Hindering Development

GAO-17-43: Published: Nov 10, 2016. Publicly Released: Nov 17, 2016.

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Franklin W. Rusco
(202) 512-3841
ruscof@gao.gov

 

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Tribal nations hold considerable energy resources that—when developed—can improve tribal well-being and long-term economic success. However, a number of factors—including a complex federal regulatory framework that involves multiple agencies—have hampered development.

A collaborative federal approach to helping tribes achieve their energy goals is important. But we found that federal initiatives aimed at improving such collaboration lack sustained leadership, dedicated resources, and roles for key agencies—among other things. We made 10 recommendations towards addressing these and other problems.

Examples of facility, community, and utility scale solar energy projects on tribal lands.

3 photos solar projects on tribal lands, 1 on the roof of a recreation center, the others in fields

3 photos solar projects on tribal lands, 1 on the roof of a recreation center, the others in fields

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Franklin W. Rusco
(202) 512-3841
ruscof@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

Two key federal initiatives led by the Department of the Interior (Interior)—the interagency White House Council on Native American Affairs’ Energy Subgroup (Energy Subgroup) and Interior’s Indian Energy Service Center (Service Center)—were implemented to help improve collaboration and the effectiveness of federal efforts to fulfill management responsibilities for Indian lands, assist tribes in developing their energy resources, and overcome any related challenges. However, the Energy Subgroup and the Service Center have not incorporated leading collaborative practices, which may limit the effectiveness of these initiatives to address the factors that hinder Indian energy development. For example, GAO found the following:

  • Energy Subgroup: Participating agencies have dedicated few staff and financial resources to the Subgroup and have not identified resources needed or a funding model—a leading practice to sustain collaborative efforts. Some participating agency officials noted that the effectiveness of the Subgroup is limited without dedicated resources. They also stated that key activities completed to date by the Subgroup are the result of agencies voluntarily applying budgetary resources to specific activities. Without dedicated resources and a funding model to support its activities, the extent to which the Energy Subgroup will be able to effectively accomplish its goals is unclear.
  • Service Center: Interior has recognized the need for collaboration in the regulatory process and described the Service Center as a central point of collaboration for permitting that will break down barriers between federal agencies. However, some regulatory agencies, such as the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have not been included as participants. Without the involvement of key regulatory agencies, the Service Center will be limited in its ability to improve efficiencies in the regulatory process for Indian energy development.

GAO and others have previously reported that Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has longstanding workforce challenges that have hindered Indian energy development. In this review, GAO found that BIA has high vacancy rates at some agency offices and that the agency has not conducted key workforce planning activities, such as an assessment of work skills gaps. These workforce issues further contribute to BIA’s inability to effectively support Indian energy development. Federal internal control standards recommend agencies identify the key skills and competencies their workforces need to achieve their goals and assess any skills gaps. Until BIA undertakes such activities, it cannot ensure that it has a workforce with the right skills, appropriately aligned to meet the agency’s goals and tribal priorities.

A provision in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 authorizes the federal government, the largest single consumer of energy in the nation, to give preference to tribes for purchases of electricity or other energy products. However, the General Services Administration (GSA), the federal agency with primary responsibility for purchasing energy, has not developed guidance to implement this provision government-wide; doing so could help to increase tribal access to the federal government’s energy purchasing programs.

Why GAO Did This Study

Indian tribes and their members hold considerable energy resources and may use these resources to provide economic benefits and improve the well-being of their communities. However, GAO and others have found that Indian energy development is hindered by several factors, such as a complex regulatory framework, BIA workforce challenges, and limited access to energy markets.

Tribes and their members determine how to use their energy resources. In doing so, they work with multiple federal agencies with various roles in the development process—including a regulatory role, a role as provider of technical and financial assistance, or as a purchaser of energy.

GAO was asked to evaluate issues related to Indian energy development. This report examines, among other things, (1) federal efforts to help overcome factors that hinder development, (2) BIA's efforts to address workforce challenges, and (3) federal efforts to implement a preference authority to purchase energy from tribes. GAO analyzed federal data and documents and interviewed tribal and federal officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making 10 recommendations, including that the Secretary of the Interior identify resources and a funding model for the Energy Subgroup, involve other agencies in the Service Center so it is a single point of contact for the regulatory process, and require BIA to undertake workforce planning activities. GAO is also recommending that the Administrator of the GSA develop implementing guidance relating to purchasing energy from tribes. Interior, DOE, and GSA concurred with GAO's recommendations.

For more information, contact Frank Rusco at (202) 512-3841 or ruscof@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: DOE stated it will work to identify a career senior-level federal government employee to serve as co-chair of the White House Council on Native American Affairs' Energy Subgroup, but has not provided a timeline for completing the action. We will continue to monitor DOE's progress.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should designate a career senior-level federal government employee to serve as co-chair of the White House Council on Native American Affairs' Energy Subgroup.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: According to Interior officials, they will take actions to identify staff, resources, and timelines necessary to complete or sustain projects. We will continue to monitor Interior's actions.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior, as Chair of the White House Council on Native American Affairs, should direct the co-chairs of the Council's Energy Subgroup to identify appropriate resources needed for the Subgroup to accomplish its goals, as well as a funding model.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: According to Interior officials, they will explore the possibility of amending the existing MOU to include other federal agencies participating in the Energy Subgroup. We will continue to monitor Interior's actions.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior, as Chair of the White House Council on Native American Affairs, should direct the co-chairs of the Council's Energy Subgroup to establish formal agreements with all agencies identified for inclusion in the Subgroup to encourage participation.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  4. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: In September 2017, a BIA official stated that the agency has initiated discussions with Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Army Corps of Engineers in an effort to establish formal agreements. BIA has a target of December 31, 2017, to establish these agreements.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to include the other regulatory agencies in the Service Center, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Army Corps of Engineers, so that the Service Center can act as a single point of contact or a lead agency to coordinate and navigate the regulatory process.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: In September 2017 a BIA official stated the agency developed and is currently reviewing an addendum to expand an existing MOU between DOE and Indian Energy and Economic Development (IEED) to include the Service Center. However, the existing MOU between DOE and IEED does not identify the role for these agencies as related to the Service Center. As such, the addendum, as currently described by BIA officials, will not fully implement our recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to establish formal agreements with the Office of Indian Energy and Economic Development and the Department of Energy that identify, at a minimum, the advisory or support role of each office.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: On May 17, 2017, the Acting Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs testified before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs that the Service Center is developing a process that allows key agencies to provide input and requests for service. We will continue to monitor BIA's efforts to implement this recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to establish a documented process for seeking and obtaining input from key stakeholders, such as BIA employees, on the Service Center activities.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  7. Status: Open

    Comments: BIA reported it has taken actions needed to implement our recommendation. On May 17, 2017, the Acting Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs testified before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs that Interior considers this recommendation implemented because (1) the development of the Service Center was the result of a concept paper produced by a multi-agency team and (2) a multi-agency team held a tribal listening session, received written comments, and conducted conference calls in an effort to gather input from relevant stakeholders. We do not agree these actions meet the intent of the recommendation. BIA's actions have not resulted in documentation on the alternatives considered, whether tribal input and requests were considered, and the rationale for not incorporating key suggestions. We will work with the agency to identify if additional actions are planned.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to document the rationale for key decisions related to the establishment of the Service Center, such as alternatives and tribal requests that were considered.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  8. Status: Open

    Comments: In May 2017, Interior stated the BIA is in the process of identifying and implementing a workforce plan regarding positions associated with the development of Indian energy and minerals. First, the Indian Energy Service Center will collect data directly from BIA, BLM, Office of Natural Resources Revenue, and Office of Special Trustee employees in an effort to identify workload and necessary technical competencies. Then, the Service Center will work with partner bureaus to assess skills and competencies needed for energy and mineral workforce standards. This recommendation is expected to be completed by December 31, 2017.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to incorporate effective workforce planning standards by assessing critical skills and competencies needed to fulfill BIA's responsibilities related to energy development and by identifying potential gaps.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  9. Status: Open

    Comments: On May 17, 2017, the Acting Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs testified before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs that the BIA is in the process of identifying and implementing a workforce plan regarding positions associated with the development of Indian energy and minerals. Specifically, the Acting Assistant Secretary stated that the Service Center will collect data directly from BIA, the Bureau of Land Management, the Office of Natural Resources Revenue, and the Office of Special Trustee employees in an effort to identify workload and necessary technical competencies. Then, the Service Center will work with partner bureaus to assess skills and competencies needed for energy and mineral workforce standards. BIA's target for completion of the activities is December 31, 2017.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to establish a documented process for assessing BIA's workforce composition at agency offices taking into account BIA's mission, goals, and tribal priorities.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  10. Status: Open

    Comments: GSA stated it will coordinate with the Federal Acquisition Council to determine whether government-wide guidance should be issued. We will continue to monitor GSA's actions.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of the General Services Administration should develop implementing guidance to clarify how contracting officials should implement and apply the statutory authority to provide a tribal preference to future acquisitions of energy products.

    Agency Affected: General Services Administration

 

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