Boom and Gloom 

Montana's Blackfeet Nation recently signed the largest oil exploration deal in the tribe's history. Is it a vital step to saving the reservation, or an agreement destined for disaster?

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Output from that portion of the state has subsided during the recession, dropping to 25 million barrels in 2009, but still accounts for more than 90 percent of the state's oil production. And interest persists, says Tom Richmond, division administrator for the Montana Board of Oil and Gas. The number of producing wells in northeastern Montana has increased in the past four years, from 1,877 in 2006 to 2,052 in 2009, and activity is creeping toward the Fort Peck Reservation. Should the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes there enter into large-scale negotiations with oil and gas companies, it could open a whole new front for development.

"In the case of the Blackfeet, it started on the reservation and maybe it will go into areas that are off the reservation. In eastern Montana, a lot of it started off the reservation and may be headed toward on-reservation areas," Richmond says. "It's just a matter of where the thing starts to develop and what direction it goes."

But oil development comes with grave ecological and societal risks no matter where development occurs. For two months now, the nation's attention has been fixed on the Gulf of Mexico and the growing oil slick that's already devastated fisheries, wildlife and local businesses in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. The blowout of British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon well on April 20 is now considered the greatest environmental disaster in U.S. history, spewing more oil into the Gulf in a day than most Montana counties produce in a year.

click to enlarge Grinnell Day Chief, oil and gas manager for the Blackfeet Department of Commerce, knows there are ecological risks involved in fossil fuel development. He also knows the tribe stands to gain millions from just one oil agreement. With the reservation facing a 72 percent unemployment rate, the payoffs seem more than worth the gamble, Day Chief says. - PHOTO BY ALEX SAKARIASSEN
  • Photo by Alex Sakariassen
  • Grinnell Day Chief, oil and gas manager for the Blackfeet Department of Commerce, knows there are ecological risks involved in fossil fuel development. He also knows the tribe stands to gain millions from just one oil agreement. With the reservation facing a 72 percent unemployment rate, the payoffs seem more than worth the gamble, Day Chief says.

You don't have to visit the Gulf Coast to witness the hazards inherent to the oil industry. On June 10, the U.S. District Court in Great Falls sentenced Provident Energy Associates of Montana to 18 months probation and demanded a $5,000 fine for violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The Cut Bank-based firm is responsible for a storage tank leak in Pondera County in September 2008 that created a 10-by-20 foot pond of oil and caused the deaths of 18 migratory birds, including several vesper sparrows and an owl. The birds died as a result of ingesting or becoming coated with oil.

Richmond downplays the severity of the risks in Montana. Yes, the state has had problems with leaks or blowouts in the past, he says, but nothing spectacular. Those accidents have been more an economic problem than an environmental one.

"Most of our issues are just really where the wells are located and the infrastructure required and the surface occupation, not so much the safety and health aspect of it," Richmond says. "We have had oil tanks hit by lightning, which makes kind of a mess."

Day Chief insists the Blackfeet have taken precautions in each of their oil agreements to protect the tribe should any disasters occur. Despite the proximity of the 2008 Provident spill to Glacier County, he has few concerns about potential risks in this latest rush for oil.

"We have a liability clause in every one of our agreements," Day Chief says. "So if there's a spill or anything that happened recently with the well being drilled and then there was a big leak, it's the company's responsibility. We're not responsible at all."

Those familiar with oil companies' tactics don't buy it. Stoney Burk, a Choteau attorney and outspoken advocate for environmental conservation in Montana, has little faith in liability clauses. He's fought for years to keep oil companies from leasing tracts of land along the mountains just south of the Blackfeet Reservation for the very reason that oil companies have a bad history of keeping their promises to clean up when a leak, spill or blowout occurs.

click to enlarge Choteau attorney Stoney Burk has dedicated most of his life to preserving Montana’s pristine landscapes and wildlife populations. Oil is a dirty addiction, he says, and the growing boom on the Blackfeet Reservation is proof of yet another Montana community getting hooked. - PHOTO BY ALEX SAKARIASSEN
  • Photo by Alex Sakariassen
  • Choteau attorney Stoney Burk has dedicated most of his life to preserving Montana’s pristine landscapes and wildlife populations. Oil is a dirty addiction, he says, and the growing boom on the Blackfeet Reservation is proof of yet another Montana community getting hooked.

"I'm not at all opposed to drilling, to oil and gas exploration in non-pristine areas. But number one, you've got to do the safeguards," Burk says. "You've got to make sure the enforcement mechanism for keeping these companies honest is in place and that it is enforced. I don't have any bad feelings about the Blackfeet developing the oil and gas resources, except they have neighbors, they have their own people and their own land that they have to consider."

If a leak does happen on the Blackfeet Reservation, Burk's convinced the tribe will be left holding the bag.

"I guarantee you they will get their oil and gas money," he says, "and it would not surprise me if they get cheated in the process somewhere. And they will be left with the environmental cleanup—or the United States government will—when it's all over. Because that's the history of oil development in the United States."

The concerns go well beyond exposing wildlife and landscapes to oil. Development means infrastructure—heavy equipment, trucks and especially roads—that can prove more damaging to the environment than an isolated spill. With roads comes increased traffic, Burk says, and increased poaching and fractionalized migratory routes for native species. The proximity of Anschutz's operation to the mountains around East Glacier puts the company right next to a grizzly bear recovery zone.

"The dollar is society and we know it," Burk says. "And the tendency for development never puts environmental issues as a primary consideration. That's almost an afterthought, 'Oh, by the way, if we have a blowout like they did in the Gulf, or if we have a pipeline break or if we have toxic fumes escaping into the air, what do we do at the very start to make sure we have the safety mechanisms to respond?' That's never a primary issue."

Mitigation measures can be taken to reduce the impacts on local wildlife, Day Chief points out, and the Blackfeet are working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to monitor the effects of continued development. It isn't that the tribe wants to see any harm come to the land, he says. But the financial benefits in the Blackfeet's case would seem to outweigh the ecological risks.

"We do have 16,000 members to provide for," Day Chief says. "You can't just stop because there's a bear there."

Not all communities in Montana have welcomed the oil industry as warmly as the Blackfeet. Seventy-two miles southeast of Browning, residents in Choteau spent the better part of three decades opposing oil and gas development on the Rocky Mountain Front. Yes, there were promises of jobs, money and growth like those on the Blackfeet Reservation. But the unlikely band of ranchers, outfitters and businessmen known as the Friends of the Rocky Mountain Front (FRMF) recognized the cost in ecological, historical and emotional sacrifices that such benefits required.

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