By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House
For about a year I’ve been avoiding writing about a potential environmental catastrophe that’s been nagging at me. My hesitation is due primarily to a concern over telling sovereign native tribes what to do. But it’s a new year, and this is a big deal, so I'm wading in:
The 1.5 million-acre Blackfeet Reservation in northwest Montana shares its western border with Glacier National Park (GNP). That border drops from the ragged peaks of the Rocky Mountain Front to where grizzlies, among other species, troll the reservation’s rolling hills and out onto short-grass prairie. The reservation is gifted with huge lakes and hundreds of miles of fishing streams.
Nearly a century ago, oil companies first started sniffing around the area, mostly on the eastern border of the rez. After decades of modest production, interest in tapping the resources there petered out and finally fizzled entirely in the 1980s. But, like so many places across the country, the recent natural gas boom has led the Landman back to the Blackfeet.
The reservation sits atop part of the Bakken Shale formation, the same one whose spoils have frenzied communities in eastern Montana and North Dakota. Geologists know the Blackfeet/GNP border as the Montana Thrust Belt which the U.S. Geological Survey estimates could hold roughly 8.6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 109 million barrels of oil. It’s a significant reserve if you consider the entire state of Montana produced about 25 million barrels of oil in 2010.
Under the Indian Mineral Development Act, tribes can negotiate their own leases directly with energy companies, but they are generally advised by both the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Land Management, which currently oversees operations for 3,700 Indian oil and gas leases. For all exploration and drilling activities, reservations must also comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which more often than not require environmental assessments or environmental impact statements be done, both of which allow opportunities for public input.
Despite the dissent among the Blackfeet, I’ve been skirting this story because I’m uncomfortable opining on what the tribe should do with their land (as an outsider, as a white person with occupiers’ guilt and as an individual who doesn’t live in a community whose unemployment rate has risen as high as 70 percent in recent years). But there is a reasonable step which can be taken to ensure responsible development and—with more than two-thirds of the reservation now leased to energy companies—it needs to happen now.
While each drilling plan has been reviewed individually, there has been no consideration of the aggregate of the development. Late last month, as he readied for retirement, the superintendent of GNP again expressed concern over widespread development in close proximity to the park (thus far, 18 exploratory wells have been fracked directly adjacent to its border). The threat of noise, air and light pollution and the impact on wildlife migration corridors, are prominent among his concerns.
What has the cumulative effect of existing drilling been to date? What will happen if all these wells begin to produce oil and gas? Considering the risk to the collective resources of all Americans, on the rez and off, it’s critical to temper the rush long enough to answer these questions.
Images courtesy of tonybynum.com as part of his Blackfeet Oil Drilling project. The first image is the reflection of a drill rig on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in a prairie pothole (Rising Wolf Mountain, Two Medicine Valley, Glacier National Park in background). Second image is a drilling platform on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation (Chief Mountain, Glacier National Park background).
Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for their content.
Heather Hansen is an environmental journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Natural Resources Law Center at CU Boulder, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.