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'Sleeping giant' is awake and wants to work with coal, tribal energy rep says

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Conrad Stewart of the National Tribal Energy Association addresses the American Coal Council's Coal Market Strategies conference Aug. 9 in New Mexico.
Source: S&P Global Market Intelligence

While issues like the development of the Dakota Access pipeline seem to pit the U.S. energy sector against Native American interests, members of some tribes say they are eager to cash in on their vast fossil fuel reserves.

"The sleeping giant has awoken and we want to work with industry," said Conrad Stewart of the National Tribal Energy Association, an organization that promotes tribal energy and natural resources development. At the American Coal Council's Coal Market Strategies conference on Aug. 9, Stewart, a member of the Crow tribe who said he spent 10 years as a coal miner, said he is supportive of President Donald Trump and wants U.S. coal companies to know some Native American groups would like to work with them to develop their vast resources.

"When I come to these conferences, I always think of the irony," Stewart said after several presentations focused on a lack of global energy access. "Why is it so hard to try to make life so good for everybody?"

Stewart said 25 Native American reservations contain coal reserves. The Crow and Northern Cheyenne alone control 10 billion and 23 billion tons of coal reserves, respectively, and the Hopi and Navajo tribes share 21 billion tons of coal reserves.

He added that about 12% of tribal lands are being developed while 88% of "energy tribal lands remain untapped." Stewart said "energy tribes" control about 17.1 million acres of land in the United States.

Part of the reason those lands are undeveloped, he said, is that industry must go through "49 steps and four to five federal agencies" just to permit a new development.
Speaking to several attendees at the New Mexico conference, Stewart emphasized that tribes are exempt from the Interstate Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution and thus an attractive business proposition.

"I’ll tell you something: you put an Indian tribe or business in front of [a business development issue] and the Indian Commerce Clause will kick in," Stewart said, advocating for legislation that would speed up development on tribal lands.

He added that tribes are "getting smarter" and are now interested in partnerships that share more wealth with the tribe rather than "passive royalties" for coal sold from developing their land. However, he said, they still want to tap into the knowledge of the coal industry.

"We do need each other," he said, later adding that many tribes are dealing with high unemployment while waging a regulatory battle with the federal government similar to that faced by the coal sector. "The industry is talking about impediments and regulations and how it's impeding on your ability to make your bottom line. You know, I'd like to have your problem. Let's trade problems."

Stewart said that while he stands by all tribes' sovereignty and treaty rights, the Dakota Pipeline issue not only highlighted the importance of Native American tribes in energy development, but also highlighted differences in opinion among the tribes. He noted that his drive toward energy development is not shared by all tribes, many of which do not like the Crow tribe because they have worked with lawmakers and the industry to develop energy resources from their land.

"They don't like us because we are a coal tribe," he said. "They don’t like us because we are fossil fuel dependent and independent."