Beckoning the Bakken 

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

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She worries about fracking because of its "profound environmental impact in terms of waste disposal and potential for spills or catastrophic blowouts." She uses the word "intense" several times in describing the pressure, volume of water and drill depths inherent to the practice. She calls it "a lot more dangerous" than traditional oil and gas development. But she still thinks it's manageable. "The scale is so much higher than we're used to in these rural areas," she says. "It just takes us a little longer to catch up to it."

Madison's more immediate concern, though, is unceasing truck traffic. She worries about whether the trucking companies are insured, dump wastes in the right place, use low-sulfur fuel and drug-test drivers. "These are the things that, in the end, are to me something a little more difficult to get my head around than knowing what's in the fracking mix," she says.

In an effort to control the chaos, Madison's office proposed to the tribal council, and the council passed, a rule requiring oil companies to test groundwater before and after drilling. They're looking for elevated levels of chloride—the pervasive brine that spoiled Poplar's drinking water. She says the oilfield disaster, perpetually evoked by the reservation's 3,200 miles of water pipeline, has the tribes bracing for the Bakken "with their eyes wide open."

"They understand it," she says. "I know there's a lot of push for development, and obviously I understand that, but there's also a lot of support for the environmental side. So it's good—not good that we have [billions of gallons] of drinking water that are toast, but good in terms of how they approach development on the reservation."

However ingrained the lesson, the craving for oil runs deeper than anything. Madison, who hails from Williston, has seen the Bakken boom make familiar communities and landscapes unrecognizable, and so her resignation that it will reach Fort Peck has come with an extra twinge.

"I'd hate to see it happen here," she says. "I mean, I think some of the beauty of the area is its remoteness and the fact that there are not a lot of people and you're not bumping into folks all over the place. And you know your neighbors and they know you, and that's nice. It used to be that way in Williston, and it's never going to be that way again. The landscape is just getting torn to smithereens, and it's hard to look at ... But there are lots of [tribal members] who want to have a swing at it, to see what it's like to have a checkbook full of money and be able to get the things you've always thought about getting for your family and could never afford."

•••

Chairman Azure, who has a face cut from rock, dark eyes and neatly parted hair, sits at a table in his office. An antlered elk skull is affixed to the wall behind him. He's blunt about the situation. Asked whether selling leases to oil companies further cedes control of tribal lands to outsiders, or helps protect the Fort Peck tribes' sovereignty, he laughs off the notion that the tribes have any semblance of sovereignty to begin with.

"We're not sovereign," he says. "We're as sovereign as the federal government's purse strings allow us. They can pull the rug out from under us at any point in time ... I look at it this way: The more money we make—if that oil boom does hit here—I'd like to see us buy up every acre of land within the reservation again. That way we will be a sovereign nation, we will be in control. But as it is now, we're not."

click to enlarge The unemployment rate among tribal members in Poplar holds at around 60 percent. - PHOTO BY AUSTIN SMITH
  • photo by Austin Smith
  • The unemployment rate among tribal members in Poplar holds at around 60 percent.

Azure says his people haven't been in control since 1851, the year of the Fort Laramie Treaty, an agreement with several tribes negotiated by the federal government to ensure the safety of settlers traveling through the West lured by an earlier boom, the gold rush in California. The treaty identified tribal territories, which eventually became much smaller reservations, and those effectively became smaller still when federal laws later opened up Indian lands to settlement. Today, the Fort Peck tribes and its members control about 910,000 of the reservation's 2 million acres, land held in trust by the federal government, which means the tribal government can't tax the land to generate revenue. It's a big reason why the tribes remain dependent on those purse strings.

Sitting with Azure at the table are Kevin Buckles, director of the Fort Peck Tribal Employment Rights Office, or TERO, and Stoney Anketell, the tribes' Oil and Gas Committee chairman. The two men are at the forefront of those who believe the Bakken can drastically improve the lives of the roughly 6,000 Assiniboine and Sioux on the reservation.

"There's a whole generation that's kind of floundering out there," Buckles says.

If oil companies strike oil here, landholders could receive enormous windfalls. But Anketell, for one, isn't convinced a boom would meaningfully address the reservation's unemployment problem. "You have to have people who are trained, who can pass a drug test—no small matter—and who show up to work everyday, willing to sacrifice to make money for their families," he says. Few tribal members match the profile. "It's not going to solve our unemployment rate. But it's going to make a lot of people wealthy. And that's okay, too."

But Buckles holds out hope that the boom could help foster something more enduring than royalty payments. In small ways, it already has. He estimates that at least 200 members of the tribe have "boomed out," off in Montana's Elm Coulee field, southeast of the reservation, or in North Dakota, many of them working in grocery stores or for oilfield service companies. "It's not a bad deal to drive 100 miles to make 35 or 40 bucks an hour," he says. The average weekly wage on the oil patch is more than $1,200.

"And it's coming," Buckles says. "We just have to motivate and inspire our people to get a little more engaged, and be more proactive in reaching out to them ... Three years from now, if we can stay the course as a tribe, I envision us attacking that 60 percent [unemployment] number ... I really do."

Azure tamps down the optimism in the room. For all his hope that oil money can buy the tribes autonomy, he expresses an equal measure of apprehension.

"This oil boom is going to be a double-edged sword, in every aspect that it comes here," Azure says. "It'll probably do just as much harm as good."

Why, then, are the tribes unwavering in pursuit of it?

"We don't have a choice," he says.

This reporting was supported by Science Source, a project of the University of Montana School of Journalism.

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