What's the rush?


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.

For the past two years, several companies have drilled and/or fracked exploratory wells on the reservation, over one million acres of which has been leased for oil and gas exploration (including a 400,000-acre area which abuts GNP). According to the Blackfeet Department of Commerce, there are already hundreds of producing oil wells and 39 producing gas wells on their reservation. The leases have allowed the Blackfeet to pay off debts and to distribute modest payments to the 16,500 tribal members but the mother lode has not been hit, at least not yet.

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.

As the scope of the potential development is becoming more apparent, there is a growing division between tribal members. There are complaints about the lack of input and transparency, and the speed and scope of exploration. One tribal member described the process to the Missoulian as “stepping on the accelerator into the fog.” One of several grassroots organizations that’s sprung up in response to the development is Blackfeet Women Against Fracking, who are concerned with the cumulative impact of O&G development on the reservation’s cultural and ecological resources.

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.

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