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
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.
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.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Department of Energy||1. 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.|
|Department of the Interior||2. 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.|
|Department of the Interior||3. 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.|
|Department of the Interior||
Priority Rec.4. 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.
|Department of the Interior||5. 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.|
|Department of the Interior||6. 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.|
|Department of the Interior||7. 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.|
|Department of the Interior||8. 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.|
|Department of the Interior||9. 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.|
|General Services Administration||10. 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.|