I wanted to write a story about
strength and resilience. I wanted to write a story about the singers,
the horse people and the earth lodge builders of the Mandan Hidatsa
and Arikara peoples; the squash and corn, the heartland of
agricultural wealth in the Northern Plains.
That’s the story I have been wanting
to write. That story is next. The story today is about folly, greed,
confusion, unspeakable intergenerational trauma and terrifying
consequences, all in a moment in time. That time is now.
For me, this story began at Lake
Superior, a place which is sacred to the Anishinaabeg and the source
of a fifth of the world’s fresh water. I rode my horse with my
family, my community and our allies, from that place, Rice Lake
Refuge to Rice Lake on my own reservation. Those two lakes are the
mother lode of the world’s wild rice. These two lakes and the
region are threatened by a newly-proposed Sandpiper pipeline of
fracked oil from the Bakken Oil Fields of North Dakota, from the
homeland of those Arikara people. We rode, but we did not stop,
driven to go to the source, we traveled to North Dakota, accompanied
by a new friend from Colorado and an organization called Fractivist.
That is this story.
Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara territory
is in the northern Missouri River. A land of gentle rolling hills,
immense prairie diversity and the memory of fifty million bison.
Today, it’s called the Ft. Berthold reservation in North Dakota and
it’s known as the sweet spot for Bakken crude oil. About 20 percent
of the state’s oil production is coming from this reservation, in a
state with 19,000 wells.
Lynn Helms, ND Director of Mines spoke
from a panel, telling us there are 193 drilling rigs in the state,
one-sixth of them (28) are on Ft. Berthold, half on trust lands and
half on fee lands. There are 1,250 active and producing wells on the
reservation, with 2,150 leased and ready to drill. Then, Helms
explained, these wells will be in the “harvest phase of production”
soon. All of those are fracked oil wells, with some gases being
burned off in a set of flares that lights up the reservation in an
eerie way. Everywhere, it is as if the Eye of Sauron (from “The
Lord of the Rings” trilogy) is present.
That is what we see. What we also see
is that there’s a huge change in wealth on the reservation. Things
are going so well that the tribal council, which five years ago, was
facing a $200 million debt, is now wealthy. The tribal council
purchased a yacht, a yacht to take guests like Sen. Heidi Heitkamp
and oil company executives on the lake and to enjoy the beauty and
opulence many oil rich countries are accustomed to. The yacht sits
quietly on a dock by the casino, no fanfare today.
So let us talk about poverty and how
North Dakota and the U.S. treated the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara
people. They were the poorest for many years, an unspeakable poverty
of loss, intergenerational trauma and the meanness of America. All
that was manifest – not only during the Indian Wars, the small pox
epidemics (wiping out 90 percent of their people) – but crowned, by
the 1954 Garrison Diversion project that drowned a people under Lake
Sakakawea, taking 152,000 acres of their best land.
The dams drowned their villages,
drowned their agricultural wealth, drowned their history and rewrote
it in America’s manual of agricultural progress. The sense of
despair was, in some ways manifest in the landmark Dana Deegan case,
where Deegan abandoned her newborn infant and allowed it to die, an
unspeakable horror. For this, she was sentenced to a decade in
prison, in a highly controversial federal court decision. (Similar
cases involving non-Native women resulted in supervised probation and
reduced sentences.) “The law needs to be changed and Indians need
to be treated the same as their non-Indian neighbors,” Judge Myron
Bright, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, wrote in his
Bright pointed to the historic trauma
and abuse in the Deegan case as the basis for his dissent (See
www.FreeDana.com). In the end, there is no grief that I can imagine
is deeper; except, perhaps the grief that is to come. That is
unimaginable and that grief could be prevented by tribal leaders, or
inherited by their children.
That is part of the question to be
asked here. How much does the tribal leadership know about what is
going on? And how much do the people know?
Kandi Mossett, a Mandan, Hidatsa and
Arikara Nation citizen, along with many other community members like
Theodora and Joletta Birdbear have been fighting it all. They have
been trying to protect their community for a decade from new threats
brought by the petroleum reality. This includes the Basin Electric
coal facilities, just upwind from their villages, which were rushed
through the federal processes. No new oil refineries have been built
elsewhere in the U.S. for decades, but tribal sovereignty may exempt
this proposed site and expedite its process. The Facebook page “This
is Mandaree” is a wealth of information and stories they work with
the Dakota Resource Council, a non-profit trying hard to turn the
tide against extraction industries.
Known and Unknown
In the Anishinaabe universe, there are
eight layers of the world – those are the worlds in which we live,
those above and below. Most of us live in the present, in the world
we can see. What we do, however may intersect with those other
Fracking oil is a new technology,
despite what oil companies say, it is a big experiment; made possible
because of a perfect storm: a lack of federal regulation, a dearth of
state and tribal regulation, and unlimited access to water and air,
into which everything is dumped.
The 2005 Energy Policy Act had
something in it called the Halliburton Amendment. That amendment
exempted the oil and gas industry from most major environmental laws.
This includes special exemptions from the Comprehensive Environmental
Response, Compensation and Liability Act, commonly known as
Superfund. That law authorizes the EPA to respond to releases – or
threatened releases – of hazardous substances that may endanger
public health, welfare or the environment.
Other exemptions for the oil and gas
industry in the amendment include: Resource Conservation and Recovery
Act (Subtitle C establishes a federal program to manage hazardous
wastes for its entire existence to ensure that hazardous waste is
handled in a manner that protects human health and the environment);
the Safe Drinking Water Act (the main federal law that ensures the
quality of Americans’ drinking water); the Clean Water Act (intended
to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological
integrity of the nation’s waters by preventing point and non-point
pollution sources, providing assistance to publicly-owned treatment
works for their improvement); and the National Environmental Policy
Act (a law intended to assure that all branches of government give
proper consideration to the environment prior to undertaking any
major federal action that could significantly affect the
The Clean Air Act is the law that
defines EPA’s responsibilities for protecting and improving the
nation’s air quality and the stratospheric ozone layer. Exemptions to
the CAA remove the requirement that emissions not be combined with
emissions from any oil, gas exploration, production wells and
emissions from any pipeline compressor or pump station.
The exemptions have worked out pretty
well for industry and one might argue for the short term leaseholder
and royalties. Not so for those trying to protect the environment.
Edmund Baker, Ft. Berthold Environmental Director, has been
challenged in his regulation of the fracking industry.
On July 8, what was known as the
Crestwood Spill was discovered. This means about a million gallons of
radioactive and highly saline water was leaking from a pipe and
headed to a stream and Lake Sakakawea. Industry officials, joined by
Chairman Hall, talked about how fortuitously all had been saved by
three beaver dams. Let’s say leave it to beaver, may be a bit of a
simplistic environmental protection plan.
The spill was found. Always a problem,
because when something is found, it has usually gone on for quite a
while. After all, the 800,000-gallon spill that occurred last year in
the Bakken field was discovered, about two months after it had
started seeping out of a quarter size whole in a pipe. The Crestwood
spill is estimated to be well over a million gallons of highly saline
and radioactive water. Baker has not been able to review any of
the spill data. That data is held by the tribal council.
“My officers had asked if they could
get copies of the samples. My officers were denied. I don’t have
the data, I don’t have any solid numbers … I never received
anything,” Baker said.
His job is already difficult, being as
there are 1,200 or so wells on the reservation and twice as many
underway, not to mention a pretty substantial waste stream from the
fracking industry. Those wastes are not just water, or airborne, they
are also solid wastes and some of those are radioactive.
Death by Lethal Injection
Let’s start with the problem of
water. Fracking involves the use of immense amounts of water –
hundreds of millions of gallons per well. One company (Southwest
Energy Resources) told reporters that what’s involved in fracking
is basic chemicals you could find in your house.
That would be – it seems – if you
were running a meth lab. Water used by fracking companies laced with
over 600 toxins and carcinogens. Those chemicals are considered trade
secrets and are not subjected to scrutiny. This has become a bit of a
problem. Simply stated: once water has been used in fracking, it is
no longer living water. It is dead and it is lethal.
Much of that water is being pumped
into deep underground caverns, by the trillions of gallons.
In Colorado, there is one injection
well that is over a trillion gallons, injected. The data from North
Dakota is hard to come by but it is emerging, but Colorado’s data
has been probed by a host of concerned citizens.
A report released in June by Abrahm
Lustgarten of ProPublica found, “Over the past several
decades, U.S. industries have injected more than 30 trillion gallons
of toxic liquid deep into the earth, using broad expanses of the
nation’s geology as an invisible dumping ground.”
During its investigation of the EPA’s
oversight of the nation’s injection wells, ProPublica found
that the agency was unable to provide basic information to its
journalists, such as how many disposal wells fail and how often such
failures occur. The investigative news organization also reported
that the EPA, “has not counted the number of cases of waste
migration or contamination in more than 20 years” and that “the
agency often accepts reports from state injection regulators that are
partly blank, contain conflicting figures or are missing data.”
Shane Davis directs a Colorado
organization called Fractivist. Colorado is a few years down the road
in fracking. There are 54,000 wells presently in Colorado and in Weld
County – where Shane lived – there were 22,000 wells, some 75
within a one mile-radius from his house.
Davis got sick from the wells. He
described a set of serious rashes, going blind for a week, serious
gastrointestinal problems and a year-and-a-half of a bloody nose.
Then he got angry, “I conducted an investigative study using
un-redacted, official COGCC spill/release reports and found that 43
percent of all oil and gas related spills resulted in ground water
contamination with chemicals like benzene, toluene, xylene,
ethyl-benzene and many more in Weld County, Colorado.”
A biologist by training, Davis
continued to research and his findings were confirmed by Colorado
agencies in 2013. He explained, “Colorado’s largest aquifer was
also contaminated by thermogenic methane and toluene in 2009. The
aquifer was never cleaned, the oil and gas operator was fined $46,200
and the public was never informed by the state about this atrocity.
“Citizens drank benzene contaminated
water, people’s homes have abandoned oil and gas wells in their
back yards and they do not know about them, homes have been built on
top of abandoned wells, which leaked gases that subsequently exploded
and sent the occupants to the burn center. “Billions and billions
of gallons of toxic, endocrine disrupting chemicals have been
discharged in Colorado’s rivers, lands and airways for years with
no end in sight.”
An interesting question was asked by
reporters Joel Dyer and Jefferson Dodge in the Boulder Weekly,
“With more than 30 trillion gallons of toxic waste having been
injected into the inner earth, what happens if our belief that what
goes down can’t come up is wrong?”
The Levels Above
Flaring: The Eye of Sauron
“Every single day there is more than 100 million cubic
feet of natural gas, which is flared away. That’s enough to heat
half a million homes. That’s as much carbon dioxide emitted as
300,000 cars,” Kandi Mossett explains. “That’s crazy.”
There is twice as much flaring on the
reservation as off the reservation. That’s to say that the lack of
infrastructure has been surpassed by the speed of extraction. Natural
gas burned in flaring is a byproduct of crude oil. Without enough
pipelines to transport the gas at a state level, one-third of what’s
released each day – worth $1.4 million – goes up in smoke. Tribal
citizens say as much as 70 percent of gas from wells on the
reservation is flared.
Ironically, last winter – as Debbie
Dogskin on the nearby Standing Rock reservation froze to death in the
polar vortex and a nationwide propane shortage set in – the Bakken
fields flared gas, rich in propane. According to the Bloomberg News,
“On a percentage basis, more gas was flared in the state than in
any other domestic oil field and at a level equal to Russia and twice
that in Nigeria. In Texas, less than 1 percent of natural gas is
burned off; in North Dakota, flaring is allowed for six months.
In North Dakota, energy companies can
flare for a year without paying taxes or royalties. Oil and gas
production is greatest during a well’s first three months,
exacerbating the problem. Tribal officials are very concerned about
the flaring, but the companies have been reluctant to invest in the
infrastructure necessary to capture the gases, so flaring continues.
This brings you to what we don’t
see. “These are called VOCs, or volatile organic compounds,”
Mossett explains. “They – the companies – have generously put
up signs for us, to tell us that the toxins are present in the air.
What do we do, just stop breathing when we go by?”
A Colorado School of Public Health
study undertaken by Dr. Lisa McKenzie found airborne hydrocarbons
near oil and gas facilities. She found a number of carcinogenic
chemicals and endocrine disrupting chemicals being released one-half
mile away from the oil and gas facilities, at levels which would
increase human cancer rates exponentially.
Dr. Theo Colburn completed an air
chemistry study that also found high levels of endocrine disrupting
chemicals (EDCs) being released by the fracking industry. Those make
you sterile, among other health concerns, they are not to be trifled
Industry has suggested that toxic
emissions don’t occur but studies indicate that between 2 and 100
tons per year, per well pad are emitted into the air. That includes
benzene, toluene, napthene, xylene and more. Those are largely
invisible to the eye but they are not invisible to the body, nor an
infrared camera. Davis began using military infrared cameras to
document the escaping gases. Those are pretty extensive and can be
viewed online, at Fractivist.org. The longterm impacts may be more
troubling – endocrine disrupters that cause sterility and birth
“A huge portion of the chemicals
used in the fracking industry are protected as trademark secrets.
This becomes important because an active oil and gas well pad or has
an on-site issue, such as a blow out, or spraying chemicals in
communities or elsewhere, where there are animals or humans, the
victims would not know the nature of the chemical contamination and
thus puts the patient and the doctor in jeopardy.” Davis said. “If
there is an issue with a well pad, the emergency response people do
not know the chemical they are responding to and consequently will
not have the appropriate equipment for this response. Every operator
has a different cocktail, which they are using, and in that fluid
there are trade secrets they are using. A huge concern is that the
burden of expense has been shifted to the general public to pay for
the emergency response and so the oil and gas industry does not have
to really get involved.”
About the Money
This is – after all – about money.
Money that provides compensation to
tribal citizens for leases and royalties, which makes everyone feel
better. There are tribal millionaires, there are oil barons, there
are tribal leaders who are oil barons and the state of North Dakota
is looking robust in its’ economic plan. But not everyone is doing so
well because not everyone has mineral rights and those who do may
have been cheated out of hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties
by a complex scheme. “Some of our tribal members leased land for
$34 an acre,” Mossett said.
Ramona Two Shields and Mary Louise
Defender filed a lawsuit in late 2012, which was about the money,
alleging that an unscrupulous set of decisions had been made in a
complex web entangling casino managers, tribal leaders, BIA and
agency representatives, along with oil interests. The legal brief
reads like something from the “Pelican Brief.”
The case was dismissed on a
technicality but has some interesting stories.
Like the story of the 42,500 acres of
tribal land that was leased at below market value by the BIA and with
approval of the council – worked through some middlemen associated
with the casino and Ft. Berthold Development Commission – and
Spencer Williams and Rick Woodward as well as other figures in the
oil and gas industry.
The Two Shield suit alleges that the
BIA, under the influence of a set of factors, grossly mismanaged the
potential revenues from the oil leasing on the reservation, resulting
in the loss of millions of dollars to tribal citizens. Another set of
corruption charges were leveled at the tribal council, in particular
recently-defeated Chairman Tex Hall. A report released in
mid-September included 100 pages of legal analysis and 200 pages of
“The report,” according to the
Bismarck Tribune, “lays out a timeline that alleges just
days after being elected in 2010, Hall used his office to demand $1.2
million from Spotted Hawk Development, an oil and gas company, before
he would sign off on the company’s development plan. It also
alleges he used his office to secure more than $580,000 in payments
for water-hauling to a man who has since been implicated in a
separate murder-for-hire scheme. The report further alleges he
unfairly competed with other tribal oil service companies.”
The problems, however are deep, and
more than a little intergenerational as well as multi-jurisdiction.
And Tex “Red Tipped Arrow” Hall did not make this whole story,
nor all the problems. A few years ago he pointed out how the tribe
has had to struggle just for a pittance, “The state has a $1
billion budget surplus and created a $1.2 billon trust fund for
infrastructure needs. The MHA Nation has roads that need fixing now.
Our tax revenues should not go to a state investment account. In
2011, the State collected more than $60 million in taxes from energy
development on the reservation, but spent less than $2 million for
infrastructure on the Reservation,” Hall testified at a federal
It’s September 3 at the Great Plains
Tribal Chairman’s Association and I’ve had the pleasure of
speaking on a panel with four oil and gas guys.
Things are looking pretty good for the
industry after all. The BIA has a table, at which they are busy
flagging down possible lessees with a bright green pamphlet titled,
“Frequently Asked Questions for Indian Mineral Owners,” and a
price list for what is available and when it might get paid out.
It’s sort of an upbeat occasion for
the bureau, after all that mismanagement uncovered in the Cobell
(Indian Trust) case. This time, the bureau feels it will manage the
money well, although that little problem the Two Shield case
discusses may remain a problem.
The Ft. Berthold Tribe has celebrated
a banner year for oil production, despite a record number of spills,
incidents and dirty radioactive frack filter “socks” found in
municipal waste, road sides and on an allottees land. “Some kids
found some and were playing with them, radioactive frack socks,”
Indeed, Hall celebrated tribal
sovereignty on Earth Day with a Barrel Oil Sale and Extravaganza in
New Town, announced with great pride in the Denver papers and in a
full page advertisement in the Denver March Pow Wow program.
“We’ll all say it was good while
it lasted,” is a haunting testimony I heard in northern Alberta
from a woman who lives on a small reserve swimming in oil spills
today. “It was good while it lasted.”
At my friend Jessica and Marty’s, we
are going into the sweat lodge. I am interested in getting any extra
toxins off my body from the oil industry – mental, physical or
spiritual. I arrived at their house. Today, an oil rig and flare
stares at them, 300 yards from their front door.
The eye of Sauron looks at us as we
leave our car, headed to the shelter of the lodge. I shudder and then
cache myself inside. I swear I heard the well breathing.
Marty and Jessica are building an
earth lodge and moving their children there, along with their horses
and their future. Somehow the oil production projections in the
Bakken seem pretty short term, in the face of an earth lodge. That is
to say, that Bakken oil is about the equivalent to a year’s
consumption by the U.S. and well capacity is diminishing. That costs
On May 27, Bloomberg News reported,
“Shale debt has almost doubled over the last four years while
revenue has gained just 5.6 percent.”
“The list of companies that are
financially stressed is considerable,” said Benjamin Dell, managing
partner of Kimmeridge Energy, a New York-based asset manager. That
might be a bit of a problem when it’s time to pay up for the
Elsewhere, citizens in Colorado have
enacted moratoriums on fracking in seven municipalities, New York and
California are deep into battles over fracking, Nova Scotia has just
banned fracking; counties in England announced a ban in early
September and there are a lot of questions being asked worldwide, and
a lot of faucets catching on fire.
not asked many questions. It might be time. It might also be time to
ask some questions in Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara territory.