One year into his tenure as director of the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Indian Energy, Kevin R. Frost has been hard at work implementing programs to serve Indian Country. With last week’s announcement that the Office plans to issue a new funding announcement later this year, we caught up with Director Frost to hear firsthand how he hopes this opportunity will benefit tribes looking to develop their energy resources.
Read on to learn about his past, his hopes for the future, and what motivates him to lead the Office of Indian Energy.
How have your past experiences shaped your path to become the Director of the Office of Indian Energy?
In terms of life experiences, looking at no running water, no electricity, animal husbandry, sustenance living—those kinds of things, I've done that on and off throughout my whole life growing up, whether it was on the reservation or off the reservation, because I did have the opportunity to live on two reservations, with both my parents being from different tribes: my father Southern Ute and my mother Navajo. I am an enrolled member of the Southern Ute tribe.
So, understanding all that—it really gives you a great appreciation for the privilege you have to flip on the light switch, turn the thermostat on to get some heat, or even just to go down to the grocery store and buy some food if you have the financial means to do so. And those things, at least from my perspective, are very important when you inherit an office like this, or you're given the opportunity and privilege to be in this position.
As far as education, I've always been science-related my whole entire life—always been inquisitive that way. My Bachelor of Science was in conservation science, and after that, I went ahead and got my law degree from the University of Denver. And what that provided for me is more of a broad landscape in terms of how you view policy issues, legislative issues, legal issues.
Career-wise, I guess you can say I worked my way into this position. I was able to give President Trump a direct presentation on some issues faced in natural resource development within Indian Country, looking at regulations and how they can impede some of your progress, and it can actually become a death valley for your project because things take too long, partners pull out. When I was given the honor to represent Indian Country at that meeting, I showed the effects that regulations can have when you're looking to stand up some of these projects or even utilize some your own [energy] assets to benefit your own community.
And lo and behold, I was given the opportunity to be Deputy Director, and then Director, and I saw that as a great chance to utilize the expertise that my tribe had to help others, to utilize those best practices in some of the common obstacles that a lot of tribes would face, and prepare them in a way that would make them successful.
What do you find most inspiring or motivating about your work as the Director of the Office of Indian Energy?
This goes back to my own life experiences, understanding how transformational it is to turn on the light switch, what that means to not only the elders but also what it means to the young kids who need to do schoolwork. In today's technological age, it's imperative that not only do you have access to the internet but also that you have the power generation behind it to allow you to have that access. So, when I hear the stories that we see at our annual Office of Indian Energy Program Review and you see just what [energy development] has done for an entire community, whether it's lowering or stabilizing the cost of their electricity or just allowing them to continue to be productive in their own lives, those are the things that actually get me into the office every day.
And I have a great team—I can't speak about them enough—whether it's our federal staff, our contractor support in Golden, Colorado, or the national labs, we're just all one big team that works cohesively to move the needle forward and make sure that we're accomplishing the mission of the Office.
Whether it's our federal staff, our contractor support in Golden, Colorado, or the national labs, we're just all one big team that works cohesively to move the needle forward and make sure that we're accomplishing the mission of the Office.
Looking at energy development in Indian Country, what do you see as the greatest challenges and opportunities?
Right now, first and foremost, [the challenge is] financial. There are a lot of communities out there that just don't have the financial ability to put up their cost-share requirement [for Office of Indian Energy funding opportunities]. And if they're unable to meet those needs, we as an office have to reconfigure what we do. How do we get them to either skill up so they can begin to interface with our office—because it takes a certain amount of capacity to interact with us. It doesn't matter whether you're from a small-, medium-, or high-capacity tribe; it just depends on what you want to accomplish. In my position, I have seen high-capacity tribes not get a grant from us, but I've seen a lot of smaller, first-time tribes get a grant from us. So, that always gives me hope that we're making some progress, that tribes themselves are internally building some capacity and are able to leverage their own resources, so when they do have that opportunity we know they'll be successful.
But there are also some great things that we do to assist tribes when it comes to some of those challenges. If [tribes] don't have the opportunity to get one of our grants, we do offer a path to energy development: prioritized technical assistance to get them to the point where they can stand up a project. But that's something a tribe has to opt in for. If they want to self-determine their own energy destiny, then it behooves them to take those next steps towards it.
So, there's a lot of great things in the mix. We're just waiting for some of the tribes to take that first step into the unknown. And then, once they take that first step I'm sure there will be a continual flow of other tribes that now will model some of that and begin taking their own energy development futures into their own hands.
We serve at the pleasure of what Indian Country wants to do, and that's the most important and credible thing that we have as an office in terms our mantra of what we wish to accomplish.
Having attended a few Office of Indian Energy Program Reviews, how do you see the impact of DOE support on tribal energy development growing over the last two decades or so?
Over the last couple of Program Reviews—I've been to three—I've just seen a huge impact. The biggest thing that I see is on the last day, when everyone talks about the huge impact that the Office has made for their tribal communities. Those are things that I wish so many more people could hear because that's where the rubber meets the road. That's where all that hard work on the tribal side bubbles up into an actual project, and we just come in there as a real, true, honest partner, and work with these tribes.
And the one thing that I always find helpful is that tribes help themselves. They help each other. And by building that internal tribal network, that's the resiliency that we see. If there's something that our office can't do, tribes can rely on each other. And that's what the Program Review also allows, that networking opportunity within the tribes, and within the industry as well.
We've gotten to the point now that Indian Country is leading the way in renewables, leading the way in solar. There are tribes now that have utility commercial-scale projects, and they're looking to move electrons off their tribal lands. And as they move those electrons off their tribal lands, the impact that it has in terms of economic development allows them to pursue other goals, to meet other needs that really help their community.
So, just seeing that proliferation and seeing the tribes, how excited they are and, for lack of a better word, energized to continue some of this great work—I just wish more people could see that aspect of it because it truly is phenomenal.
There are tribes now that have utility commercial-scale projects, and they're looking to move electrons off their tribal lands. And as they move those electrons off their tribal lands, the impact that it has in terms of economic development allows them to pursue other goals, to meet other needs that really help their community.
How do you see the Office of Indian Energy's technical and economic support impacting people's lives?
What I'm looking at right now in my role is energy generation, power generation in and of itself, as the linchpin or the nexus for economic development. When we're able to have tribes begin that power generation journey and be able to provide that energy to their own communities, that's one huge item that's off their plate. A lot of tribes talk about tribal sovereignty and self-determination—well, you're not really sovereign if you have to depend on someone else for your power generation needs. Once they get the power generation done, then they can start focusing on some of the benefits that derive from that—because you can't have economic development, you can't have small businesses within your own tribal lands if there's no power generation to flick on the lights.
We also have to take into consideration economic maturity. We want to see tribal money cycle six to seven times as you would see in a mature economy before it leaves, because what we presently see is the money only cycles once, or it doesn't cycle at all, and it leaves their tribal lands never to return.
So, whatever we can do on that front —let's begin with power generation because that's going to support all your other endeavors, whether it's education, health … If we can get that off your list, I think we've done our part to get you to the point where you can begin to live that self-sufficient lifestyle.
How does the work the Office does advance the current administration's priorities?
From that framework, what we're looking at is being fuel and technology neutral. And with 574 tribes across the country, that's 574 different energy development goals. This administration wanted to have an "all of the above" strategy, and what that allows us to do as an office now is interact with all 574 [tribes] that want to do all different types of projects.
With 574 tribes across the country, that's 574 different energy development goals.
When you have the opportunity to talk with members of Congress, what is the one thing you feel is most important for them to know about what the Office does?
The change that the Office is able to make that benefits these communities is the greatest impact that we see. And that's the best story to tell. It's not what happens within the Office. It's not what happens up on the Hill. But the work they do up on the Hill, the appropriations they give us, we always talk about how those changes positively benefit these communities.
The more Indian Country is able to use our office, stand up projects, utilize our technical assistance, or build capacity, then that's what also allows us to ask for a larger budget. We try to convey to Congress that the money that is appropriated and that we spend on behalf of the taxpayer goes through several rigorous reviews, so that we pick the projects we know are going to work and benefit their communities.
And the community begins to see that after the projects are built. They see their energy costs coming down. They see that tribal governments can now begin working on other issues within their own communities.
What have been your top takeaways during your tenure as Director?
Listening to your team, listening to Indian Country, and learning—and that's very important. It's not just listening and learning, but how do you implement what you listened and learned? If you're willing to do that and to also understand some of the cultural protocols in place—interacting with elders, understanding some of those customs and asking for permission to speak, even in my role—those are those small nuances that help [tribes] understand that when you're talking about these issues you're kind of speaking from the heart. Those are things that move mountains with us.
And that gets more people to even visit us in Washington, D.C. The best thing that I have even on my worst day is when I have a tribe come to visit, because it's just so great to see someone from the tribal community coming to us, wanting to work with us—and not us doing the work for them, but doing it as equal partners.
The best thing that I have even on my worst day is when I have a tribe come to visit, because it's just so great to see someone from the tribal community coming to us, wanting to work with us—and not us doing the work for them, but doing it as equal partners.
What is your vision for the future of energy in Indian Country?
My vision is that one day we'll be able to supply the funding and the technical assistance required so that all the tribes can have their standalone energy projects that positively benefit them. If we continue along that goal—I can't guarantee we'll hit 574 because that's up to the tribes to determine—but if we can get as close to that as we can, leveraging every resource that we have, I think Indian Country right now is primed to be the leader in this nation in different aspects of energy development.
Tribes are persevering against all obstacles in some cases and creating a much better future for their own tribal communities. And for me to be able to talk about this and say that, that's what gives me tremendous pleasure in showing up to my office every day, because we are making those incremental changes.
And one day beyond the end of my life—and I always say this to people—I want to stand in front of my ancestors and tell them that I did a good job. And those are the things for me that are honest and true, but that's how I see my office and I see my role.