Fast Facts

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

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Highlights

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.

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Recommendations

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

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
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.
Open
In June 2013, an executive order established the White House Council on Native American Affairs. However, the Council did not convene under the current Presidential administration until mid-2020. We will follow-up with DOE in fiscal year 2021 regarding this recommendation.
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.
Closed - Not Implemented
In June 2013, an executive order established the White House Council on Native American Affairs. However, the Council has not convened under the current Presidential administration. At this time, with the Subgroup inactive, we do not think Interior needs to identify the resources the Subgroup would need to address its goals.
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.
Open
In June 2013, an executive order established the White House Council on Native American Affairs. The Tribal Energy Subgroup's efforts were to focus on creating a coordinated effort among the federal agencies to promote energy and energy infrastructure development in Indian Country. The Council convened under the current administration in mid-2020. We believe Interior should still pursue this collaboration and agreements with these agencies and will monitor the agency's progress.
Department of the Interior
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
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.
Closed - Implemented
In 2019, the Indian Energy Service Center (Service Center) entered into formal agreements with Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps). The agreements include commitments to share knowledge and information to enhance and further mineral and energy development on trust lands. In 2020, the Service Center updated the charters for three existing regional federal partner groups and established three new groups in Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) regions where conventional and renewable energy activity is occurring. The intent of these groups is to serve as a forum for local federal officials from BIA, the Bureau of Land Management, the Office of Natural Resources Revenue, Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians, and the Division of Energy and Mineral Development to identify and work to resolve energy and mineral issues and coordinate the regulatory process for each region. The groups are to meet at least once a year, and the charters note that regional representatives from FWS, EPA and the Corps may be included. The Service Center identified appropriate regional representatives from FWS, EPA, and the Corps in the six regions and included them in the federal partner meetings in August and September 2020. Service Center officials told us that they plan to include representatives from each of these agencies in future federal partner meetings and that the meetings will serve as a mechanism for coordination across the agencies. These actions meet the intent of our recommendation.
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.
Closed - Implemented
An addendum was added to an existing Memorandum of Understanding between IEED and DOE's Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs. The addendum incorporates the Indian Energy Service Center (IESC) as a partner in the agreement. The MOU establishes an agreement that the offices will collaborate on Indian energy issues. The MOU outlines that the offices will meet quarterly to share information, review progress, and set priorities. The IESC initiated monthly calls with these offices to identify opportunities for collaboration. The three offices jointly developed a communication plan to guide interaction which includes the goal to leverage each other's resources to jointly contribute to Indian energy resource and capacity development, a plan to meet monthly, and a plan to develop a regular semi-annual report. The semi-annual report will include summary descriptions of each office's collaborative activities, summary analysis on the accomplishments of these activities, and the benefit provided to Indian beneficiaries.
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.
Closed - Implemented
The Indian Energy Service Center (IESC) participates in meetings with senior level management representatives to discuss Indian energy and mineral resource development concerns. IESC receives referrals regarding backlog workloads and high priority work at these meetings. The meetings include attending the Indian Energy and Minerals Steering Committee with senior level management representatives from Interior bureaus and offices including BIA, BLM, IEED, ONRR, and OST. The IESC also participates in federal partner meetings at the regional level for Fort Berthold; Uintah and Ouray; and the Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas area. IESC also developed a referral/intake form and process in August 2017 that allows stakeholders, including agency office officials, to request services. The intake form and instructions are on IESC's website. The IESC staff track the requests and have a process for evaluating requests. We believe these combined actions meet the intent of our recommendation that Interior obtain input from key stakeholders on IESC 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.
Closed - Not Implemented
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. BIA provided documentation that these meetings occurred. However, BIA has not provided documentation on the alternatives considered, whether tribal input and requests were considered, and the rationale for not incorporating key suggestions. We reported in GAO-17-43 that BIA officials said they did not document the basis for key decisions because they were not aware of the requirement.
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.
Open
In July 2020, BIA contracted with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to conduct competency modeling and gap analyses for nine selected BIA mission critical occupations related to energy development. BIA officials stated that BIA would conduct competency modeling and gap analyses for the remaining BIA occupations related to energy development and estimated the competency models and gap analyses for all BIA energy occupations would be completed by August 2021.
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.
Open
In July 2020, BIA contracted with OPM for workforce planning assistance, to include development of a documented process to assess BIA's workforce composition at agency offices. Based on the timeframe of the OPM contract, BIA officials estimated preparing the documented process would be done by August 2021. We will need to review the documented process to close this recommendation.
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.
Closed - Not Implemented
GSA partially agreed with the recommendation, stating that guidance would be beneficial. GSA added the preference language from the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to the form it uses to delegate purchasing authority to other federal agencies that may seek this authority in the future. However, GSA said that implementing guidance would need to be in the form of regulation issued by the Federal Acquisition Regulatory Council because of that body's authority for issuing government-wide guidance. In April 2017, GSA referred the problem to the Council. As we reported in April 2019, in "Tribal Energy: Opportunities Exist to Increase Federal Agencies' Use of the Tribal Energy Preference" (GAO-19-359), the Council declined to address the problem. Consequently, in that report, we suggested that to the extent that the Congress wants to further encourage use of tribally owned energy resources, it should consider amending the statute to provide more specific direction to federal agencies for implementing the tribal energy preference, to include consideration of additional incentives or requirements. In October 2019, GSA stated that the agency will not consider acting further on this issue without congressional action. As such, we are closing this recommendation as not implemented.

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