AUWCL PEEL and NALSA discuss Economic Development Challenges of Developing Energy Projects on Tribal Lands

September 20, 2023

On Wednesday, September 20th, the American University Washington College of Law (AUWCL) Program on Environmental and Energy Law and the Native American Law Students Association teamed up to host an event on Tribal Energy, Natural Resources, and Land Economic Development. Speakers included Chris Deschene, Executive Director of the National Inter-Tribal Energy Council and member of the Navajo Nation, and Ezra Rosser, AUWCL Professor of Federal Indian Law. 

Deschene kicked off the event by welcoming attendees and introducing himself in the Navajo language. His talk focused on the importance of energy sovereignty to Indigenous nations’ economic development, the phases of energy project development, and the legal, social, and technical challenges to developing on tribal lands. He highlighted the necessity of outsiders supporting the sovereignty of Indigenous Nations as these communities look for balance in their energy profile and gradually shift towards carbon neutrality. 

Both Deschene and Rosser highlighted the complicated legacy of environmental groups’ use of community division tactics to undermine tribal sovereignty and halt energy projects, such as the development of coal project Desert Rock. Deschene argued that in this case and others, “environmental NGOs have used colonial structures to achieve their environmental goals.” Moving forward, he suggested that environmental organizations shift their mindset away from the idea that their “mission is greater than the tribe” and towards the goal of finding common missions. 

Rosser seconded the opinions of Desche, arguing that environmental organizations must take sovereignty seriously. “Not everyone in the tribe will agree,” he explained, “the way that is manipulated (by environmental organizations) is the problem.” Moving forward, both Desche and Rosser urged greater outreach and communication between environmental organizations and sovereign Indigenous nations. Their hope is that moving forward, environmental groups will no longer pick and choose when to support Indigenous sovereignty, but instead use consultation and the tools of the community to complement their environmental goals.