The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation (MHA Nation) is eager to begin processing oil from the Bakken Formation, a shale rock strata covering parts of Montana, North Dakota and Canada, reported the Grand Forks Herald.
The tribe's reservation in western North Dakota sits in the epicenter of the expanding oil-bearing hot spot. Today, more than 350 producing oil wells dot the reservation landscape.
After years of effort by tribal officials, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved a key permit August 1 for the Nation's proposed refinery on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, according to the tribe's press release.
The MHA Nation's recently obtained permit allows for the discharging of treated wastewater from the refining process. Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota) called the permit “a significant milestone," when he announced its approval in Washington D.C. on August 4.
Hoeven noted ways refinery construction and operation would benefit people throughout North Dakota. "It will create new jobs, especially for members of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation," he said, and also "make it possible for North Dakota to play a more integral role in the entire cycle of oil production, from its crude extraction to consumer use."
The refinery is expected to create an estimated 1,000 jobs during a two-year construction period and 65 permanent jobs.
Plans for the project, first proposed in the 1990s, have been underway for years. Refinery construction has already started, partly because "we didn't want to lose the 2011 [construction] season," Tribal Chairman Tex Hall told the Grand Forks Herald. Completion is slated for as early as 2013, he said. It would be one of the first refineries constructed in the United States in the past three decades, the Grand Forks Herald reported.
Getting EPA approval to construct the refinery was an uphill battle. "It took eight years, and I traveled to Denver [to meet with EPA officials] more times than I care to remember," Hall told the Grand Forks Herald. "Our engineers are all excited about moving forward now. We're going gangbusters in the Bakken, with our own drilling and production, and now we're going to add refining."
The EPA's environmental impact statement was prepared in 2009 and had been under formal review since, as the tribe and the agency debated over jurisdiction and necessary documents.
The Nation has narrowed its focus to pumping North Dakota crude oil from the Bakken Formation, including oil pumped from wells drilled and operated by the MHA Nation, reported the Herald. Initially, the tribe planned to refine Canadian tar sands at its new refinery to produce a variety of fuels.
"This way we're not only drilling and producing our own local crude, but we would be refining it, too, turning it into diesel fuel, gasoline and propane through a tribal corporation," Hall said. "That's always been my objective, to have the tribe involved in all aspects of the industry."
The tribe also intends to look into connecting the new refinery with area oil pipelines.
More agreements need to be sorted out with the Army Corps of Engineers related to water for refinery operations and with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, among other agencies, Hall told the Herald, adding that he expects sorting out those arrangements to go smoothly.
The EPA assessment has noted the refinery would increase traffic on local roads—a source of ongoing problems for the tribe, which previously sought a larger tax cut from the reservation’s production to care for its roads. A good portion of the tribe's current oil revenue funds road repair and construction and other reservation infrastructure. It also covers debt incurred from the tribe's move into the oil industry.
Some tribal members have voiced opposition to the tribe's head-straight dive into oil production due to fear of disruption of traditional life and harm to the environment, the people and wildlife. “You don’t need to take a toxic tour of the reservation,” said Kandi Mossett, tribal climate change coordinator for the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), a non-profit environmental and economic justice organization. “You can see it when you just drive onto Fort Berthold. They’ll see the trucks and the gas flares. You can see the glare off the clouds at night for miles.”
The IEN recently hosted the four-day 16th annual Protecting Mother Earth Gathering titled “Water, Energy, Climate and the Importance of Health and Culture.” The July 28-31 event at the Little Shell Antelope Society Arbor in New Town, North Dakota was expected to draw up to 1,000 people from across the country.