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Energy loan program for tribal lands remains untapped

No projects have been funded by the Energy Department program that got its first appropriation in 2017

"This legacy of neglect needs to stop now," Indian Affairs Chairman Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said a hearing last week.
"This legacy of neglect needs to stop now," Indian Affairs Chairman Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said a hearing last week. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Corrected April 10 | A federal tribal energy loan program that has never been used is getting bipartisan attention from the leaders of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

The Tribal Energy Loan Guarantee Program is intended to support tribal investment in energy-related projects by providing loan guarantees. It is estimated that 17,000 homes in Indian Country lack electricity, with most being in the Southwest and in Alaska.

The Department of Energy program was authorized in 2005 and Congress began appropriating funding for it in Fiscal 2017, but it has yet to fund a single energy project on Native American reservations, according to testimony at a March 29 hearing of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

The addition of $75 million to the program from the climate, health care and tax package, along with an increase in available loan guarantees to $20 billion, haven’t helped matters, the committee learned.

Roll Call first reported on the unused program in January 2022. And the Senate hearing last week showed little has changed in the past year, a situation that angered leaders of the committee.

“This down payment should begin to address the United States’ history of actively exploiting Native energy resources for non-Native gain and willfully neglecting native energy needs,” panel Chairman Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said. “This legacy of neglect needs to stop now. We need a course correction to support Native energy development, and it needs to start with the agencies that you represent.”

Officials of the DOE and Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs said concerns about “double dipping” — adding loan guarantees for projects that are already partially federally funded — plus staffing issues and red tape have slowed the processing of funding applications.

Kathleen Hogan, the DOE’s principal deputy undersecretary and acting undersecretary for infrastructure, said the department’s interpretation of the recent budget reconciliation law bars “double dipping,” and that has stopped many project applications.

Schatz disagreed, saying that double dipping is getting the same dollar amount to cover the same cost twice, and that the DOE’s interpretation is “extremely punitive” and “restrictive” and is inconsistent with what Congress intended. 

‘Preposterous’

“Those of you who know me know I have perhaps an unearned reputation as being relatively even-keeled, but I am mad,” he said. “This is preposterous. I don’t come here and berate people, but I’m left with no choice.”

The budget reconciliation law says that no amounts made available for loan guarantees can be used for any projects that will receive other federal funds, personnel or property, except for certain projects including those generating electricity using transmission facilities owned or operated by a Federal Power Marketing Administration or the Tennessee Valley Authority.

The Interior Department’s assistant secretary for Indian affairs, Bryan Newland, also testified at the hearing about the use of funding from the budget reconciliation law as well as $13 billion provided from the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law. 

In its fiscal 2024 budget proposal, the Biden administration requested $6.3 million for the program, an increase from the $4 million enacted the current year and the $2 million enacted for fiscal 2022.

Though Newland said the Interior plans to distribute funds for electrifying homes, staffing, navigating jurisdictional issues and coordinating outreach with tribes are hurdles that are slowing progress.

“The basic standard of living that most Americans enjoy is out of reach,” he said. “Our goal is to get this funding to where it’s needed as quickly as we can and to fulfill our obligation to consult with tribes. … We’ve been looking at all of our administrative authorities to speed that process up.”

Indian Affairs Vice Chair Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she has spent two decades “looking to those programs that we have where there should and must be more opportunities for Native people. But when it’s our own systems that effectively hold them back, that’s not fair to anybody.”

This report has been corrected to reflect when the loan program was authorized by Congress.

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