How do you go about leasing the oil and gas resources that exist on tribal lands? It is a complicated process involving trust land issues and numerous federal laws relating to energy production. Consulting with a law firm experienced in protecting the rights of Native Americans and their unique challenges can be instrumental in achieving an accurate overview of matters associated with oil and gas leasing rights on their lands.

As the American oil industry seeks to get more of its energy from within United States borders, the oil and gas rights on Native American trust lands has come under closer scrutiny. Tribal lands within the Unites States contain up to 20 percent of the country’s gas and oil resources, and they are controlled by a small concentration of tribal governments, who largely rely on the U.S. federal government for guidance and support.

Tribal Governments and Federal Oversight

Current legislation has emphasized giving tribal governments greater decision-making authority over their natural resources; however, the barriers to their economic development — particularly with regard to these resources — are exceptionally challenging.

The federal government continues to lend support and oversight to tribal governments based on the “trust doctrine” which loosely requires that the federal government provide:

  • Protection of Native American lands and First Nation usage rights.
  • Upholding of tribal sovereignty and self-governance.
  • Basic social, medical and educational services.
  • The federal government to act in the best interests of Native American tribes.

As a result of a major lawsuit in 2010 that led to a $3.4 billion class action settlement against the federal government’s mismanagement of individual trust funds, there is a much more intense scrutiny of federal government oversight is now in play. This has brought about immense legal challenges with regard to oil and gas rights on tribal lands.

Trust land oil and gas resources have come sharply into focus with U.S. government security concerns relating to “homegrown” energy harvesting and sustainability. Tribal lands host enormous resources, and have the potential to considerably elevate the Native American economy. External pressure and federal lobbying from the non-native energy industry has only increased the challenges. Oil and gas extraction from tribal lands is as controversial as it is in other communities in the country.

Native Americans living on Indian reservations rank as the most economically disadvantaged people in the United States. For those tribal lands with abundant oil and gas resources, such as the Navajo Nation, development can radically change this situation.

Important Challenges Exist with Regard to Oil and Gas Rights

Mineral wealth has been historically one of the underlying dynamics of national growth. The Native American holdings represent a potentially significant expansion of that wealth, if extracted. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) reports that there are 42 federally recognized tribes that have gas and oil production, including the Navajo Nation in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. There is a complex web of laws, precedents and oversights that must be adhered to, carefully and correctly.

Some key challenges include:

  • Federal government maintains trust obligations to these “domestic dependent nations,” and Indian lands cannot be legally encumbered or conveyed without federal approval.
  • Tribal governments are not uniform in constitution, direction or enforcement and may act arbitrarily with regard to oil and gas exploitation.
  • Some tribes, such as the Navajo Nation, have rejected the Indian Reorganization Act which gives these tribes a bit more power since they will not have to seek federal approval for tribal council legislation. But, legislation directing pertaining to trust property will still require such approval.

At C.J. Lee & Associates, P.C., we can assist in in all oil and gas rights issues, as well as the leasing initiatives available to you or your tribe. We have experience. We can help. Call us now for a consultation at 505-728-7799