On Wednesday, President Joe Biden ordered a temporary suspension of new leasing and permitting for oil and gas development on public lands. But the order will not apply to tribal lands.
"The order does not restrict energy activities on lands that the United States holds in trust for Tribes," the White House announced . "The Secretary of the Interior will continue to consult with Tribes regarding the development and management of renewable and conventional energy resources, in conformance with the U.S. government's trust responsibilities."
The clarification comes after the Interior Department's initial leasing moratorium did not explicitly mention tribal lands, drawing backlash from leaders of oil and gas producing tribes.
"Your order is a direct attack on our economy, sovereignty, and our right to self-determination," Chairman Luke Duncan of the Ute Indian Tribe wrote in a letter to the department. "Indian lands are not federal public lands. Any action on our lands and interests can only be taken after effective tribal consultation."
From the Crow Tribe in Montana to the Jicarilla Apache Nation in New Mexico, many reservation economies in the Mountain West rely heavily on fossil fuel extraction and production. And unlike state and local governments, those tribes don't have a tax base to fall back on.
Stephen Fast Horse, a member of the Northern Arapaho Business Council, said royalties from oil and gas leasing pay for social services on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, and for per-capita payments that have helped Northern Arapaho tribal citizens survive the pandemic.
"[The payments] ensure that our tribal members can follow the protocols of our reservation's stay-at-home order and the CDC guidelines," Fast Horse said.
After Wednesday's announcement that tribes would be exempt from the leasing suspension, he breathed a sigh of relief.
"Something like that would impact all of us oil and gas tribes pretty badly. It would cripple us, it would set back our ability to function," Fast Horse said.
The issue is thornier for tribal climate and environmental activists. Dallas Goldtooth, an organizer with the non-profit Indigenous Environmental Network, said it's refreshing to see the Biden administration respecting tribes' sovereign right to make decisions about their land.
"With that being said, it's a dual-edged sword," Goldtooth said. "There are a number of tribes who are deeply invested in the fossil fuel economy. And we are extremely disappointed that those tribal nations choose to use their sovereignty to continue to plunder Mother Earth."
Moving forward, Goldtooth hopes the Biden administration will include tribal nations in orders meant to address climate change, and support them in divesting from the fossil fuel industry.
Biden's tribal nations platform includes a pledge to do just that. According to Eric Henson, a researcher with the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, following through will require investment in the "building blocks" of a diversified economy on rural reservations, including quality healthcare, education, and physical infrastructure.
"Is there any reason why the next stimulus bill could not earmark a substantial amount of funding for wind and solar development on tribal lands?" he said. "Some of the [oil and gas reliant] tribes have incredible potential for things like wind power production, but they're far from market centers, so you need very expensive transmission investments. But there's no reason why that's impossible at the federal level."
On the whole, Henson said Wednesday's announcement is a win for tribal self-determination, and signals a potential shift towards a more equal relationship between tribal nations and the federal government.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.