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New Energy Department office seeks ideas for energy solutions on tribal lands

March 7th 4:15 pm | Alex DeMarban Print this article   Email this article   Create a Shortlink for this article

It's been a humble beginning for the Energy Department's new Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs.

The creation of the office was announced in mid-December at President Obama's second tribal nation's gathering in Washington, D.C.

"We know that tribal lands hold a great capacity for solar, wind and geothermal projects, and we are committed to helping you unlock that potential," said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at the gathering.

The office "will leverage the department's resources to promote tribal energy development," he said.

Almost three months later, the office is getting off the ground.

Its one Internet page [http://www.energy.gov/indianenergy/] can be found at www.energy.gov/indianenergy. Last week, you couldn't get there from the Energy Department's main page, but that will change soon, a spokeswoman said.

The office's history is confusing.

In 2007, the Bush Administration issued a statement [http://www.energy.gov/news/archives/5493.htm]saying it established the Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs, leading to questions about what happened during that first effort.

Given such a past, it's easy to wonder about the office's future. Is the Obama Administration committed to it? How long it will be around? What will it accomplish?

On Friday, The Arctic Sounder interviewed the new director, Tracey LeBeau, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe from South Dakota.

Starting March 16 in Reno, Nev., the office will host a nationwide series of meetings to understand energy needs in Indian Country. The information gathered at those nine meetings will help create marching orders for the new effort.

The meeting in Alaska - home to outrageous rural energy prices and more than one-third of the nation's tribes - will be held last, on April 14. It will be an all-day meeting, rather than the half-day meetings planned in the Lower 48.

Question: The Office of Indian Energy was ... launched at the tribal nation's gathering Obama held a few months ago. But (it was apparently launched in 2007 too, with Steve Morello named as director). So are there two such offices? Or did this one in 2007 go defunct? How can we have a new office now and a new office then with the same name?

I knew Steve Morello, and vaguely how it was going back then. It's my understanding he was brought in and he was placed under Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs. There was no office formally created to house either this office or him as an employee. So up until January of this year, I guess you could say the Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs was around, but it wasn't stood up as a formal office. And it had no budget or programmatic, administrative support until this was formally created last month.

I should clarify, it had appropriations when the Obama Administration came in. The office was appropriated for 2009 and 2010, so there was the beginning of some support in that regard. But the office was not formally stood up until last month.

I understand that President Obama has provided a much different feel toward Indian tribes than we've gotten perhaps from any other president ever, in terms of his support for Indian tribes. But I have to ask, in light of this office appearing and disappearing in 2007, is this the real deal, or are you going to disappear in a couple months?

I would say the department has put forward budget requests for this office consistently, since Secretary Chu has been on.

So far in 2012, this office was separately identified and a budget request was made, so to the degree Congress continues to support those budget requests, like any other office, we'll continue to be here.

And I'm in the process of trying to put together a staffing plan not just for this year, but a longer-term staffing plan for the Office of Indian Energy. I do have a deputy director that has come on recently and we're starting to put together a staffing plan for the longer term.

How many people will you have on your staff?

We are in the process of thinking through our staffing plan. I'm only a little hesitant about saying how many people we'll have in our office because I'm so new into this, and this is a brand new office. So before we start announcing the building-out of programs and that sort of thing, which will drive some of our decisions about how to staff, we need to get out into Indian Country and talk to Indian Country and get a solid consensus with Indian Country.

...

If we go out in Indian Country and it's very clear to us that we hear loud and clear, we want a specific and large initiative, say, on electricity transmission, or electrification, that will drive a very different staffing scenario, than if they say let's just focus on a residential solar initiative.

What's the annual budget?

The annual requested budget has been $1.5 million. ... We are trying to narrow it down to exactly how much appropriated funds we do have available to this office and to Indian Country.

Why was this office created?

It was created in the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The language is fairly broad, but it was created to encourage and coordinate and manage programs for tribes related to energy development and energy capacity building and reduce energy costs in Indian Country and to look at electrification of Indian lands and homes.

And so it's pretty broad. I think that was the right approach and right way to do it, because there's so much need out there. But our shorter-term strategy is to get out and talk to tribes directly and help us narrow it down, because we don't want to establish an office that is spread out too thin. We'd rather make sure we're hitting Indian Country's needs and priorities and focus in on them in the short-term.

As director, do you have some personal goals?

I've been in the energy development arena my entire career. I've never worked for the federal government before. But on occasion I was fortunate enough to work on some tribal energy projects, so I have that perspective of where I think there are things that government can do better to facilitate energy development in Indian Country.

So one thing I could say - I guess it's a personal goal and it's definitely one of the issues we have heard just in our short time being here, directly from tribal leaders - has been a high degree of interest and I think opportunity for the Department of Energy to take a lead role in working across the different federal agencies that are also involved in some sort of role in energy development in Indian Country.

There's a lot of focus with the Administration in clean energy development, and there's a lot of agencies doing things in this sphere, and some of the feedback we're getting from tribes pretty consistently has been, 'Wow, there's so many people doing things in this area. It'll be helpful to understand how these programs can work together, and how we can leverage programs and resources to get projects that the tribes are wanting to see happen.'

So one of the first things we started doing is meeting and starting to discuss ways to collaborate and work more closely with agencies. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has got a lot of programs and interests and Secretary Vilsack has been pretty outspoken about wanting to see clean energy programs in Indian Country and so much of Indian Country is in rural America, so that definitely falls in his wheelhouse. So working with USDA, Environmental Protection Agency, with the Department of Interior, which we're talking actively with right now to identify areas and programs where we can collaborate.

In (rural) Alaska, we've got really high energy costs. I don't know if it will get even worse with the higher price of oil that's been recently spiking. Do you have any ideas yet how Alaska can not only tap into this program, but reduce its energy costs?

We are very, very interested. We are going to be there April 14, including me. Everywhere else we're going to be doing half-day roundtable discussions, but in Anchorage we want to do a whole day, because we know the need is so serious and so great. And we know folks will be coming from a long ways, so we're going to do a whole day. We haven't found the venue yet, but we'll update the Web site as we find the venue.

We want to hear from people directly. We realize it's a special, very unique place, and it's an area where we want to pay some special attention to in terms of perhaps new approaches on a small, community scale or innovative technology level.

I'm not certain what you mean by new approaches on community scale or smaller scale development. Can you tell me more about that?

In general, a lot of the federal agencies have paid a lot of attention and focused funds on the big, commercial scale projects in Indian Country. And that makes sense, because a lot of tribes in the Lower 48 are looking at some really large build-out projects. That can work in Alaska in some cases, but there are also some more practical, driving needs in Alaska, just basic residential energy cost issues. So residential applications, community-scale applications, like distributed-energy projects. That's something we'll pay special attention to, and try to work with the communities up there to see how we can get some of these projects up and running.

How should tribes get in touch with you or your staff to learn more?

There's a couple ways. We will be having a link on that Web page, identifying numbers and emails and that sort of thing. But we also have a dedicated email address set up. It's listed on the letter, tribalconsultation@hq.doe.gov. So any comments they have about the conference or the upcoming summit, that's where we're asking them asking them to send those questions or comments to.

 


Alex DeMarban can be reached at alex@alaskanewspapers.com

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