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Trust or Bust: Complications with Tribal Trust Obligations and Environmental Sovereignty

Trust or Bust: Complications with Tribal Trust Obligations and Environmental Sovereignty

Nadia B. Ahmad

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and participation rights should mean more, not less, on tribal lands when respect for tribal sovereignty and federal tribal trust responsibilities exists. This Article proposes a rights-based approach to reinvigorate tribal treaty regimes based on a historico-legal analysis of the interconnected right-of-way doctrine and environmental impact statement process for pipeline projects in “Indian Country.” This legal strategy will enrich the democratic approaches to tribal consultation, and respond to environmental justice concerns arising from lax regulations and the subsequent environmental degradation. The aim of this Article is to reframe the responses to tribal environmental challenges on account of deficiencies in NEPA and prior tribal trust claims. It also offers recommendations to overcome those challenges through analyzing the history of right-of-way regulations in Indian Country, the standards for impact statements, and treaty language. Moreover, this Article assesses tribal sovereignty through the lens of energy infrastructure projects on Indian lands, and concludes that updates to the federal right-of-way law chisel away at tribal rights to land, property, and self-determination.[1] Without a thorough reassessment of the essential rights-of-way laws that affect pipeline permitting on tribal lands, tribal environmental sovereignty will be compromised, and tribal land will be more prone to environmental degradation and pollution from increased toxins and hazards associated with oil and gas transport. This Article argues that using existing NEPA procedural remedies,[2] in concert with provisions from the updated rights-of-way regulations in Indian Country, provides project development and litigation outcomes more attenuated to Indian interests.[3]


American Indian tribes face exceptional land use, property, and environmental challenges because of hydrocarbon transport projects on their lands.[4] Due to the tribes’ various geographic locations throughout the United States, and their proximity to existing and future hydrocarbon reserves, pipelines crisscross tribal lands with increased frequency and carrying capacity.[5] A hydrocarbon transport project in a right-of-way corridor creates an economically efficient means of passage for energy resources, but such a project also sullies tribal property, sovereignty, and environmental rights. From a legal perspective, a pipeline poses significant risks to the use and enjoyment of tribal land, and uniquely threatens sacred space.[6]


While concern for pipeline siting is ubiquitous, what is less conspicuous––but equally significant––is the property and environmental rights impact of energy projects on tribal lands and on former tribal lands ceded to the United States.[7] More than 50 million acres of Indian trust lands exist in the United States.[8] Thousands of miles of easements traverse tribal lands for various purposes as crucial fragments of the national infrastructure.[9] Significant swaths of tribal lands lay within the path of major energy infrastructure projects.[10] American Indian communities experience an imbalanced proportion of environmental degradation on account of the mineral development in North America.[11]


Without improved tribal consultations and more robust treaty claims, the updated rights-of-way regulations in Indian Country will lead to a steady and blatant encroachment of tribal lands. Moreover, this will also affect all future development of energy easements, including lands of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe in northwestern Minnesota, Navajo Nation in Texas and New Mexico, and the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Big Cypress Reservation.[12] Under these regulations, native environmental protection concerns are devalued and underappreciated, particularly in negotiating and/or contesting pipeline siting and permitting.[13] Based on the unique nature of the pipeline industry and asset specificity, long distance pipelines create distinct financing and contracting matters.[14] “[A] century of dealing with oil and gas pipelines shows just how hard it is to keep them from being used as John D. Rockefeller first discovered they could be—as levers to frustrate competition in commodity markets and as profitable tollgates lying athwart commodity trade routes.”[15] The economics of the pipeline industry also make the business climate adverse to environmental and tribal land concerns.


Part I provides the jurisdictional overlay of rights and duties involved with projects on tribal lands. Part II examines the legal nuances in the development of right-of-way regulations in what constitutes Indian lands. Parts II.C and II.D posit that NEPA sufficiently allows for stronger claims against pipeline projects. Analyzing tribal challenges to pipelines in the cases of Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate v. U.S. Department of State[16] and TransCanada Pipeline and White Earth Nation v. U.S. Department of State[17] showcases distinct methodological opportunities to take advantage of legal remedies implicit in NEPA.[18] To counter threats to tribal environmental sovereignty by an ever-expanding consortium of oil and gas operations, Part III offers an ancillary proposal of normative guidelines. These guidelines heighten transparency, incorporate a richer understanding of the NEPA process in energy permitting, and enhance measures for a better participatory process to avoid legal showdowns, such as the Dakota Access Pipeline Project.

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[1] Rights-of-Way on Indian Lands, 80 Fed. Reg. 79,258 (Dec. 21, 2015) (to be codified at 25 C.F.R. pt. 169) (promulgating a rule “streamlin[ing] the process for obtaining Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) grants of rights-of-way on Indian land and BIA land, while supporting tribal self-determination and self-governance”). See also 25 C.F.R. pt. 169 (2016) (prescribing the procedures, terms, and conditions under which rights-of-way over tribal lands may be granted).

[2] National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, 42 U.S.C. §§ 4331–4370 (2012). The Revised Draft Guidance for Greenhouse Emissions and Climate Change Impacts of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) provides additional support for environmental protection. The legacy of previous attempts at climate change adaptation measures is diminishing with a new White House administration. Yet, existing federal regulations and environmental protection measures—along with private-public partnerships—will minimize the assault on environmental rights by federal leadership that is attuned to the interests of the fossil fuel industry. See White House Council on Environmental Quality, Revised Draft Guidance for Greenhouse Emissions and Climate Change Impacts 1–2 (Dec. 18, 2014), https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/default/files/docs/nepa_revised_draft_ghg_guidance.pdf.

[3] Rights-of-Way on Indian Lands, 80 Fed. Reg. 72,492, 72,492 (Nov. 19, 2015) (to be codified at 25 C.F.R. pt. 169) (promulgating a rule “[s]treamlining the process for obtaining a right-of-way on Indian land”). The total climate change litigation in the United States exceeds that of the rest of the world combined. By 2013, more than 420 climate cases had been resolved in the United States versus 173 for the rest of the world. Michael B. Gerrard, Scale and Focus of Climate Litigation Outside the U.S., N.Y. Law Journal (Mar. 12, 2015), http://web.law.columbia.edu/sites/default/files/microsites/climate-change/nyljscaleandfocusofclimatelitigationoutsideofunitedstates_0.pdf.

[4] See Bill McKibben, Why Dakota Is the New Keystone, N.Y. Times (Oct. 28, 2016), https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/29/opinion/why-dakota-is-the-new-keystone.html (discussing Native Americans conducting peaceful protests against an oil pipeline seeking to address clean water, environmental justice, and climate issues).

[5] See Jack Healy, North Dakota Oil Pipeline Battle: Whose Fighting and Why?, N.Y. Times (Dec. 2, 2016), https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/02/us/north-dakota-oil-pipeline-battle-whos-fighting-and-why.html (stating that there are 2.5 million miles of pipelines crossing the United States).

[6] See id. (discussing the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s opposition to the Dakota access pipeline for crossing over sacred tribal land).

[7] Andrew S. Montgomery, Tribal Sovereignty and Congressional Dominion: Rights-of-Way for Gas Pipelines on Indian Reservations, 38 Stan. L. Rev. 195, 199 (1985).

[8] C.E. Willoughby, Native American Sovereignty Takes a Back Seat to the “Pig in the Parlor:” The Redefining of Tribal Sovereignty in Traditional Property Law Terms, 19 S. Ill. L.J. 593, 601 (1995).

[9] Todd Miller, Comment, Easements on Tribal Sovereignty, 26 Am. Indian L. Rev. 105, 105 (2001). Rights-of-way easements encompass “highways, railroads, electric transmission lines, oil and gas pipelines, and various communication facilities.” Id.

[10] See Daniel W. Hester, Protection of Sacred Sites and Cultural Resources: An Obstacle
to Development in Indian Country?
, 23A Rocky Mtn. Min. L. Inst. 11 (1989) (noting that development of the Powder River region would impact the Norther Cheyenne Tribe).

[11] James M. Grijalva, Control and Accountability: The Twin Dimensions of Tribal Sovereignty Necessary to Achieve Environmental Justice for Native America, in Tribes, Land, and the Environment 30 (Sarah Krakoff & Ezra Rosser eds., 2012).

[12] See Miller, supra note 9, at 130 (identifying the need for more energy easements across tribal land to satisfy the demand for more transmission capacity).

[13] See Rights-of-Way on Indian Lands, 80 Fed. Reg. 72,492, 72,492 (Nov. 19, 2015) (to be codified at 25 C.F.R. pt. 169) (noting the absence of environmental considerations, despite the streamlined process). See also 25 C.F.R. § 169.3 (2016) (giving the Secretary authority to grant right-of-way permits).

[14] Jeff D. Makholm, The Political Economy of Pipelines: A Century of Comparative Institutional Development 175 (2012).

[15] Id. at 176.

[16] Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate v. U.S. Dep’t of State, 659 F. Supp. 2d 1071, 1079 (D.S.D. 2009).

[17] White Earth Nation v. Kerry, No. 14-4726 (MJD/LIB), 2015 WL 8483278, at *1 (D. Minn. Dec. 9, 2015).

[18] The rights-of-way revisions include: (1) “Eliminating the need to obtain BIA consent for surveying in preparation for applying for a right-of-way”; (2) “Establishing timelines for BIA review of rights-of-way requests”; “Clarifying processes for BIA review of right-of-way documents”; (4) “[A]llowing BIA disapproval only where there is a stated compelling reason”; (5) “[P]roviding greater deference to Tribes on decisions affecting lands”; (6) Clarifying the authority by which BIA approves rights-of-way; and (7) “[E]liminating outdated requirements that apply to specific different types of rights-of-way.” Rights-of-Way on Indian Lands, 80 Fed. Reg. 72,492, 72,492 (Nov. 19, 2015) (to be codified at 25 C.F.R. pt. 169).

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