Interior pressed to encourage Indian tribes to develop oil and gas

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Barrasso, the committee's top Republican, added, "We should be asking the tribes, not the Sierra Club or the policy wonks in some think tank or some university, what they want to do with their homelands."

"I think our government needs to work with native people in developing their resources, managing their resources in a responsible manner so that they can grow their economies and help their citizens as well as grow their communities," said Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.). "I think that's vitally important."

"There's a lot of potential for renewable energy in Indian country," retorted Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who advocated for a distributed generation model that generates electricity from small sources not connected to a larger grid.

"Those technologies are good for the environment," he added.

In coming days, the Interior Department is expected to propose a rule on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the method by which a high-pressure mix of water, sand and chemicals is injected into rock formations to release hydrocarbons.

The rule, which has already been criticized by Republicans, will likely require energy producers to disclose the chemicals they use and impose standards on integrity of wells and water that returns to the surface after the process.

Republican lawmakers questioned the effect of the impending regulations on Indian tribes.

"I just hope you realize that any new regulations are likely to exacerbate delays and costs and hinder tribes," Barrasso told the secretary.

The new fracking rule "is really important to tribes," added Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.). "They need to be able to hydraulically fracture. So how these rules will come out will be very important, and I want your commitment that you will work with the states and the tribes on a rule that works."

After the hearing, Jewell, in just her fifth week on the job, told reporters "it's still weeks, not months" until the proposal is released.

Legislators also expressed concern to the secretary about the effect of cuts from sequestration on Indian reservations and problems stemming from a 2009 Supreme Court ruling that restricted the federal government from taking tribes' land into trust.

Jewell called the state of government-run schools on reservations "an embarrassment" that would not be helped by sequestration.

She told reporters afterwards, "We have a number of schools that are identified as in poor condition. That's not what we aspire to be in our responsibility for Indian education."

-- This story was updated at 5:50 p.m.