Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Indian country as oil country

In our class discussions and readings, we have touched on the persistent poverty and high unemployment rates that plague many of those who live on Native American reservations across the country. According to the USDA Economic Research Service's analysis of 2000 Census data, 40 high-poverty Native American counties "did not simply have a greater incidence of poverty, they also had the highest proportion in deep poverty" as compared to other high-poverty counties. On the USDA ERS site, "deep poverty" means that "[a] full fifth of the total population in these areas lived in households with incomes below 75 percent of the poverty line." Among high-poverty counties, Native American counties also have the lowest share of people employed.

Given these sobering statistics, I was interested to read this blog post by Reese Rogers of the Rural West Initiative at the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University. In the post, Rogers discusses the construction of an oil refinery on Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota.

Made up of nearly one million acres of land and parts of six different counties, Fort Berthold had a population of nearly 6,000 people in 2000. Although Fort Berthold's counties are not among those determined by the USDA to be high poverty, the reservation did have high unemployment rates before the oil boom.

Fort Berthold encompasses a large portion of the rich Bakken shale formation, which has been enjoying a boom in oil production since 2008. It is estimated that the Bakken formation holds nearly 4 million barrels of oil and 148 million barrels of natural gas liquids. According to Rogers, the refinery in Fort Berthold and other oil-related developments have already contributed to a stunning 36 point drop in Fort Berthold's unemployment rate.

What caught my eye about the blog post, however, was the leading quotation from Tex Hall, Chairman of Fort Berthold's Three Affiliated Tribes, "We are of the firm belief we will become more sovereign by the barrel."

Despite the potential economic benefits of drilling and refining oil, it is unlikely that all the local residents are as supportive and optimistic as Chairman Hall. Indeed, as Rogers points out later in the post, there are serious environmental and cultural concerns:
The unique situation of the sovereignty of the tribal lands often leads to red tape and confusion over responsibility when it comes to environmental regulation. While the EPA took control in assessing the environmental impact of the refinery project, residents have expressed concerns over the lack of environmental regulations governing other actions, such as dumping. Other concerns have been voiced about development encroaching on cultural sites.
According to the Bismark Tribune, one unforeseen consequence of the oil boom has been the increased traffic on reservation roads. Huge trucks damage the roads and stall traffic, creating concerns about adequate access to emergency services. For many, the most significant concern is the use of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," so close to underground water sources. (See other Legal Ruralism posts about tracking here and here.)

Still, in several articles on development of the oil fields, there is pattern of highlighting the potential for self-sufficiency for rural people who previously had limited economic opportunity. One November 2010 article in the Bismark Tribune says that many tribe elders feel that the oil boom helps to right the wrongs of the federal government, which in the 1950s forced residents to relocate within the reservation when it flooded parts of tribal lands to create a reservoir.

Beyond providing temporary jobs for refinery construction and permanent jobs in drilling or at the refining, money reaped from the oil may also help the Affiliated Tribes invest in roads, health care, and technology.

Perhaps the best assessment of Fort Berthold's delicate position comes from Chairman Hall, quoted in an Al Jazerra article on the subject:
It's in the spirit of our ancestors, they left us this land and these beautiful minerals that were in the middle of this oil plain...The oil and gas on Fort Berthold, it's a blessing and it's a curse. If we don't do it right and we let the oil run over us...it'll be a curse.


JWHS said...

I wonder how this could affect the infrastructure of reservations, maybe more small businesses and what not to serve the new consumers?

KB said...

What struck me most was the quote by Chairman Hall that said the oil would bring his community greater sovereignty. However, as JLS pointed out, the community has already had to rely on the EPA for assessing environmental impacts. It seems that as the project progresses, more EPA involvement will be necessary.

Greater independence may happen in the future once Fort Berthold becomes economically stable. For now, though, I believe it will have to rely on increased outside assistance from government agencies and business to ensure minimal environmental impacts and proper infrastructure.

Namora said...

This post made me think about environmental justice. Native Americans-to my knowledge-have in some ways escaped the "hot-spot" phenomenon because of their location on reservations and in rural areas. Hot spots are a concentration of environmental pollution, usually in communities of color and low-income, typically in industrial areas or areas surrounded by freeways. However, depending on how oil infrastructure is developed, hot spots may begin to emerge in areas populated primarily by Native Americans.

Scarecrow said...

It's noteworthy that Al Jazeera took interest in this story. The Middle Eastern news agency extensively covers governments that have huge oil and natural gas reserves. Despite their "beautiful minerals," some of these governments have poorly invested their wealth. As a result, the common people of these countries probably do not live much better (if at all) than the Fort Berthold Indians. Hopefully Tex Hall asked some questions of his Al Jazeera interviewer to learn about some of the possible pitfalls of being an oil-rich nation.

Frances said...

If you own Bakken Shale Mineral Rights, you have a number of ways to proceed: You could either lease, sell off or keep your rights. You ought to talk to several experts regarding the decision you're about to make so that you won't regret it later on.