Beckoning the Bakken 

Will the oil boom reach Montana's impoverished Fort Peck tribes?

In Poplar, Mont., the Bakken boom is tantalizingly close. It's much closer than the 71 miles that separate this one-stoplight town on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation from Williston, N.D, the epicenter of the largest oil play in the lower 48. Bakken wells are just over the Missouri River, the reservation's southern boundary, and across Big Muddy Creek, its eastern boundary. The rigs are there on the Montana and North Dakota prairies every day pumping to the surface thousands of barrels of oil and riches.

But the wells are not in Poplar. The town itself conveys that reality. The seat of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes remains a reflection of the poverty that's long pervaded the reservation—a reflection, as some tribal members describe it, of "historical trauma." Historical but persisting: The unemployment rate among tribal members holds at around 60 percent. On the oil patch near Sidney, Mont., and in western North Dakota, it's less than 2 percent.

Where there's oil, the activity of tens of thousands of truckers, roughnecks and flaring natural gas appears in nighttime images from space, a cluster of light suggesting a sprawling metropolis on the northern plains. In Poplar, in March, it's quiet. Boarded-up homes and businesses line icy streets. There's no parade of oil-hauling trucks; rez dogs still dare walk the highway.

Nearly three years ago, around the time North Dakota's monthly oil production hit 10 million barrels for the first time, the people of Poplar were coping with a youth suicide epidemic. Five Poplar Middle School students killed themselves, and 20 more attempted to, during one school year.

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The boom isn't in Poplar, but the Bakken is. The reservation sits several thousand feet above what's thought to be the western edge of the geologic formation, an ancient slab of rock about the size of West Virginia laden with billions of barrels of oil. That reservoir now accounts for more than 10 percent of the country's total production. To the leaders of the Fort Peck tribes, it promises something more.

Tribal Council Chairman Floyd Azure says tapping the Bakken would make the tribes "more sovereign by the barrel," echoing the mantra of tribal leadership on North Dakota's oil-rich Fort Berthold Reservation. "That means that we can take care of ourselves. If we didn't have to depend on the federal government, we'd be a hell of a lot better off than we are now. We depend on the federal government for damn near everything we have."

Azure likens oil exploration to gambling, and the tribes are all in. Over the last few years, the tribal government and individual members have together leased about 300,000 acres to oil companies. That's a third of the tribally held land left on the reservation, which covers 2 million acres. Another 280,000 non-tribal acres on the reservation have also been leased. These leases represent what one executive of an oil company with 120,000 acres of holdings on the reservation calls the Bakken's "western expansion," the prospects of which appear promising per the industry's principle of "closeology." It's enough for oil companies to bet that horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing—the techniques that unlocked the Bakken just to the south and east—will work here, too, on this largely untapped expanse of prairie.

But they haven't struck oil yet. Oil companies have drilled seven Bakken wells over the past several years and each well produced more water than oil. Thousands of landholders who leased land—for as little as $50 an acre—have yet to see a dime in royalties. Still, everyone thinks it's only a matter of time before the boom arrives. Closeology isn't an absolute, but it is convincing to hopeful oilmen and tribes with nothing to lose.

•••

The tribes can't separate oil from water. The two have an entangled history here. Drilling began northeast of Poplar in 1952. Back then, as now, the oil companies pumped to the surface more water than oil. Those companies disposed of briny wastewater, contaminated with carcinogenic benzene and other compounds, in unlined pits. Holding tanks, pipelines and plugged oil wells leaked. Over the course of five decades, billions of gallons of brine seeped into Poplar's drinking water aquifer. Between 1999 and 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency issued five emergency orders to three oil companies, forcing them to, among other things, build a drinking water pipeline to certain residences and deliver bottled water to others.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY AUSTIN SMITH
  • photo by Austin Smith

More than 10 years before the EPA's first emergency order, the tribes, having already detected high levels of chloride in wells, began planning a pipeline to draw clean water from the Missouri River. Congress authorized funding in 2000. Last year, water began flowing from a new treatment plant on the Missouri to Poplar, and much of the rest of the 3,200 miles of pipeline are being built now.

A pile of massive blue pipes sits along the highway east of Poplar—pipes that will eventually bring water to Brockton, 14 miles down Highway 2. Forrest Smith, a chemical engineer and director of the tribes' minerals department, drives past them on his way to a nearby oilfield. "The sins of the past are still upon us in the present, and we always have to deal with them," he says.

Smith, an Assiniboine from the Frog Creek clan, was schooled in Bozeman, worked on a drilling rig in California for a few years, and then came back home. As he steers his pickup over snow-packed two-track, he talks about the Bakken, calling it "a light at the end of the tunnel," a chance to put tribal members to work.

"You'll lose your culture and language faster with poverty than you will with economic development," he says.

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