Life on the Fort Berthold Reservation From an Oil-and-Gas Specialist

A column by Delvin Cree about oil-and-gas exploration.

On a recent warm sunny day I watched as quite a few 18-wheelers, large tandem service trucks and 4x4 pick-up trucks (with big tires) drive by my brother's place on the Fort Berthold Reservation. Once in a while an ol' rez car will accompany this same highway which is very busy day and night. Soon, more traffic will be visible on this same route because road construction season is about to start; oil activity will be at a faster pace and other economic development is scheduled to take place in this area I am currently located.

The Fort Berthold Reservation sits right above the Bakken Formation which is rich with oil and gas. For the past four years the reservation has provided many jobs for tribal people who are looking for employment opportunities. Many of the jobs available have been created because of the oil and gas activity taking place on the reservation and the surrounding area.

I started coming here in 2008 when I was an advisor for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa's Allottee (Land) Association. Back then, the Association was collaborating with several tribal communities and making strides to implement a plan to address land issues associated with the federal government. After my eight-month stint with the Association, I also became the Tribe's Oil and Gas Specialist and set the groundwork for oil and gas developmentfor the Turtle Mountain Tribe, of which I am a member. While under contract with the Tribe I associated myself with point people of the Fort Berthold Reservation who were specialists of the oil-and-gas industry. The only other time I have been to this reservation was when I was teenager and I danced within the pow wow circuit.

A number of times during my visits to Fort Berthold I was able to gain additional knowledge of an industry which has benefited so many people. I was able to get hands on experiences of what it was like being a Tribal Rights Employment Opportunities (TERO) Officer, a Tribal Energy Specialist, a Tribal Preservationist, a landowner and a BIA Official working in relation to tribal lands. In saying this I want to thank the many people who have provided me with so much information which enhanced my learning experience of the oil and gas industry; most importantly, I was given the tribal view of things which is priceless.

Other times I met with our state congressional leaders and other specialist who acknowledged that someday oil and gas exploration of the Bakken Formation was going to place "on or near" the Turtle Mountain reservation in the near future. Our North Dakota State Indian Affairs Commission Director and myself scheduled a meeting with Turtle Mountain tribal leaders to discuss the potential market for oil and other minerals at Turtle Mountain.

While conducting tribal business for the Turtle Mountain reservation in the area of oil and gas exploration I often performed journalistic duties which I felt ....and the tribal newspaper felt; it was important to report what the oil and gas industry was about; especially from a tribal perspective. We did publish a few reports which has been a learning experience to readers of the Tribal newspaper.

While reporting some of the daily activities of the Fort Berthold Reservation it was evident there were some environmental concerns. The Tribe itself has made great strides in improving and protecting the Tribes landbase which is crucial for the Tribe's future. At times, news reports often headlined the difficulties the Tribe has had with dealing with state and federal officials when it came to conducting oil related business. Deterioting roads, oil and gas contamination and the influx of workers were just a few items addressed.

Because of environmental concerns, the Turtle Mountain Tribe has taken the step of banning oil development at the reservation. No Fracking Way!, a tribal environmental group created last year has convinced tribal leaders to halt the sale of of oil and gas leases from being auctioned off for the purpose of oil and gas exploration. The possible contamination of drinking water during the fracking process has been a concern of both the environmental group and tribal officials.

A national study currently taking place which involves the state of North Dakota should prove if the water is being affected by the fracking process. The study is be completed this year and is also the first study of it kind to be completed. The banning of oil and exploration on the Turtle Mountain Reservation doesn't stop development in that area of the state.

At a statewide level, oil production in North Dakota could come to a halt after new regulatory changes are being enforced. New oil rules such as the exposure of chemical fluids being used during the fracking process have to be revealed. Oil waste pits are also going to be limited. These and other new rules will take effect on April 1, 2012. The Fort Berthold Reservation because of its sovereignty status have their own set of rules and regulations which are protective of the environment.

It's most likely oil and gas exploration will continue in North Dakota with the exception of the new rules and regulations enacted. Opportunities will be available for tribal members who want to work in an industry that pays an excellent salary. Contractual opportunities are also available.

Oil and gas exploration will be around for some time and tribal populations should consider benefiting from this industry...with the exception of protecting our environment. The protection of our environment will mean state, federal, congressional and tribal leaders will have to continue working in collaboration to make this happen.

Delvin Cree is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. Cree is the former oil-and-gas specialist for the Tribe and has helped implement two poverty reduction projects for the tribal membership and he is currently the Chairperson for one of the projects.