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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LaDuke visited western Montana in early June to raise awareness of clean energy on the Flathead and Blackfeet reservations. She appeared alongside the Grammy Award-winning musical act the Indigo Girls and moderated panel discussions on the importance of turning the nation's attention to renewable resources. The thought that the Blackfeet Reservation, and large swaths of land across the state, might house present and future booms in fossil fuel extraction disgusts her to no end.

"When you're an addict to oil, you do a lot of bad shit and hang out with junkies, hang out with dealers," LaDuke says. "Look at America. The tar sands are the problem, right there. That's like hanging out with a big dealer, sitting there watching the planet get seriously scarred. You're so addicted and you're so blinded by your addiction, that's what's so shameful. We're the spirits of this world. A horse will remember stuff, but a horse isn't thinking or planning for a year from now. We have this gift where we can think ahead. We've got this gift of reason. Too bad we don't use it."

The Blackfeet Reservation and the mountains of East Glacier offer a powerful backdrop for LaDuke's sentiments. The area has enormous wind and solar potential, she says, a much more appealing alternative to rampant oil and gas drilling. Just as subterranean basins are rich with fossil fuels, the plains butting up against the mountain range offer strong and constant winds.

Despite the appeal of her renewable energy pitch, LaDuke recognizes that harnessing that power raises a host of challenges. LaDuke has struggled on the White Earth Reservation to get power companies to recognize the need for renewable energy infrastructure. She spent nearly a year haggling with power companies in order to install her own residential wind turbine. Renewable energy could solve economic problems in Indian Country just as easily as fossil fuel development. But without ready access to local power grids—one of the biggest issues facing developed wind energy in rural communities—how can the tribes not turn to the fast-though-dirty dollar of oil?

"You have tribes that have growing populations, immense poverty—which isn't their fault, it's a result of their history and everything being taken from them—and you have the potential to move into renewables. But they're stuck," LaDuke says. "The old paradigm of oil exploration is courting this whole region. You know Fort Berthold [in North Dakota] signed? These guys are looking at it and a lot of these reservations are going to see this whole new wave [of oil development] simply because of the economics. ...The reality is it's moving us away from a post-petroleum world. That's not what Montana should be doing."

In 1997, the U.S. Forest Service issued a temporary moratorium on new oil and gas leasing along the Rocky Mountain Front. Sen. Max Baucus carried a permanent ban through Congress in 2006. - PHOTO BY ALEX SAKARIASSEN
  • Photo by Alex Sakariassen
  • In 1997, the U.S. Forest Service issued a temporary moratorium on new oil and gas leasing along the Rocky Mountain Front. Sen. Max Baucus carried a permanent ban through Congress in 2006.

Proponents of renewable resources over oil development agree it's going to take a massive shift in the mentality of the nation, if not the world, to affect change. LaDuke continues to tour the country hoping to spark that shift. But she and others admit it will take something more, something bigger to shed light on the grave and inevitable dangers of our addiction to oil.

"The Gulf disaster has focused attention on how catastrophic development can be to both people and resources," Burk says. "What we have to do is the same thing we did with drugs, the same thing we did with smoking, and recognize that this is hazardous to the individual health of the nation and to the personal health of the individual. We have to simply change the attitude to focus on cleaner methods of satisfying our needs, which to me are the wind, the solar, the battery, the alternative energy. ...Our job as a nation is to recognize that we have an addiction and that there's a way out."

Day Chief has heard the arguments. He's fielded the complaints and addressed the concerns—spiritual, cultural and environmental. That's part of the job, he says. Someone's always going to have a problem with what you're doing.

"You're going to have friction with anything you do in life, not just oil and gas development," Day Chief says. "Anything you do, you're going to have environmental groups that are going to say, 'You're harming this,' or, 'You're doing what you shouldn't be doing.' We live in a beautiful area...We make sure environmentally that we protect it. But I mean, yeah, there's been calls to us saying maybe we shouldn't be developing this close to the mountains."

However, Day Chief reiterates that the tribe can't simply pass on such a reliable source of revenue. The current price of crude oil is $75.67 a barrel, about $10 below the going rate in April but indicative of another rise into late summer. Oil and gas development account for the majority of the tribe's income now, Day Chief says. The last few years of activity on the Blackfeet Reservation have made Glacier County the sixth largest county in the state for production, with 432,906 barrels recorded in 2009.

Perhaps the biggest question facing the tribe is how long this development will last. The oil industry is notorious for a boom-and-bust cycle in Montana. And even if interest holds out, the reserves below the reservation will someday run dry—as will the royalty checks when that day comes. Development is a dangerous gamble, not just for wildlife and landscape but also for the sustainability of the entire community. It's a gamble Day Chief says the Blackfeet are willing, at present, to take.

"Eventually all the oil and all the gas will be gone. I mean, once you take it out of the ground, that's it, it's gone," he says. "But if it's something that's there, and with the price of oil now, you want to get what you can out of the ground. What if 20 years from now a barrel of oil is worth $20? Well, we'd lose out on a lot of money if we waited...It's a gamble. What if 20 years from now it's $200 a barrel? Hopefully we're still producing oil. You just have to go with the market."

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