Oil and Gas Boom in Indian Country! Tribal Leaders and EPA Meet in Denver

On April 3, tribal leaders met with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Denver to discuss a number of pertinent issues, including those related to booming oil and gas exploration on tribal lands.

On April 3, tribal leaders met with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Denver to discuss a number of pertinent issues, including those related to booming oil and gas exploration on tribal lands and some of the accompanying problems.

Members of a six-state EPA tribal regional operations committee (ROC) analyzed recent oil exploration successes and drawbacks, hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” and the difficulty of environmental protection when big money is at stake.

Boom Times

Indian country is poised for substantial new oil and gas activity, the revenue from which may equal or exceed the riches currently being extracted from the Bakken Formation, which lies beneath a 200,000 square-mile area in North Dakota and Montana that includes Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, home of the Three Affiliated Tribes.

Oil and gas production in North Dakota has yielded more than $1.3 billion annually and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) inspections on federal mineral operations on the Bakken Formation rose from 200 to 718 in a four-year period, according to that agency.

Jim Stockbridge, BLM trust liaison officer, said that on Fort Berthold the revenue from oil and gas is “huge,” but it may pale in comparison to projected extraction on Ute Indian Tribe lands on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in Utah, where oil resources exist that may be “at least as big as the Bakken Formation.”

Another area expected to see “a phenomenal amount of activity” in oil and gas exploration is around Farmington, N.M., which may add 1,000 new wells this year, he said.

Social Costs

Along with the minerals boom, however, are social problems. For instance, with so much money coming into the area, real estate values tend to spike dramatically, pushing housing costs too high for low- to mid-level employees; this just one issue of many on “the entire spectrum of what you’ll have to deal with,” Stockbridge said.

Alfreda Mitre, Las Vegas Paiute Tribe, director of EPA’s regional Tribal Assistance Program, in an introduction to the discussion noted potential effects on roads, transportation, infrastructure, housing, air and water.

For every restaurant on Fort Berthold, there’s a least a one-hour wait 24 hours per day, Stockbridge said, while at an intersection without a traffic light a pedestrian had to wait a half-hour to cross because of the constant stream of semi-trucks going through non-stop.

Describing huge per-acre payments to individuals by exploration companies, Stockbridge said “these kinds of revenue will become the norm.”

Dean Goggles, of the Northern Arapaho/Eastern Shoshone Wind River Reservation’s environmental quality commission, said 99 percent of tribal land has minerals belonging to the tribe and oil companies “have jumped on this—it’s a land grab.”

Hydraulic Fracturing: Pros and Cons

EPA scientist Nathan Wiser noted that fracking can “increase production dramatically” in the oil and gas shale that occurs across the U.S.

Fracking drills and injects water and chemicals into the ground at high pressure to fracture the rock beneath so that it releases oil and gas. As oil prices rise, production using fracking has become economically viable.

Both the Ute Indian Tribe of Utah and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe of Colorado wrote to the government early this year expressing concern about pending BLM rules on fracking as it could affect economic development.

After years of hardship, “new BLM rules on hydraulic fracturing would disproportionately impact the Tribe due to our greater reliance on oil and gas development for economic growth and sustainability,” the Ute Indian Tribe wrote.

Fracking “makes the extraction of oil and gas economically feasible,” said the Southern Utes, noting there are “significant recoverable resources” in shale formations on their reservation.

Wiser said some fracking issues include the acquisition of fracking water and its competition with drinking water, the disposal of flowback from the wells, the adequacy of treatment of the flowback, spills that could enter streams, and others. “The seismicity issue is definitely of interest,” he said, explaining that if there is existing tectonic strain, fracking could “lubricate” the process.

Protecting the Environment

With so much money pouring onto tribal lands, “it’s like trying to stop a freight train,” Stockbridge said, and “the environment may be steamrolled” without early planning. At Fort Berthold, they can’t get enough rigs in to drill rapidly enough, and the operations require “a phenomenal amount of water,” he said.

Environmental concerns will have to “get ahead of the game” because of the “astronomical” amounts of money involved, he said.

Gerald Wagner, Blackfeet Nation environmental service director and vice-chairperson of the ROC, said his tribe is looking for the “environmental protection component” although the tribe does have protection ordinance. Nevertheless, the tribe is looking for the “best protection of our resource” and said he is concerned about effects to the aquifer, which may be only 10 feet from drilling activity.

Exploratory wells that use fracking have been drilled on the Blackfeet Nation’s reservation, where tracts adjoin Glacier National Park and have been a concern to some tribal members. The region may contain some 109 million barrels of oil as part of the Bakken Formation, according to tribal officials.

Tribal leaders in Denver were also told about an EPA investigation of drinking water problems in a small Wyoming community surrounded by gas production wells on the Wind River Reservation. Monitoring wells near gas wells where fracking occurred from 1998 to 2006 showed that contaminants present at high levels in the monitoring wells were “likely a result of hydraulic fracturing,” said Ayn Schmit, unit chief, EcoSystems Protection.

There is concern that the contaminants “could migrate to drinking water wells” though further study is needed, she said.

At the end of the session on oil and gas development, Wagner recalled the phrase, “Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink” -- unless, he added, you include drinking water “with gas bubbling up out of it.”