Sovereignty by the Barrel?

Tribes sit on vast reserves of oil, coal, natural gas, and uranium. Is this a blessing or a curse?

By Katie Scarlett Brandt

The Navajo Generating Station near Page, Arizona is the west’s largest coal-fired power plant. It provides 500 jobs, but its future is uncertain. Photo: Myrabella/Wikimedia Commons.

This is Part 1 in a three-part series exploring how tribes are managing their energy resources. Part 2 focuses on how research coming out of the tribal colleges can influence policy and tribal decisions, and Part 3 examines what an ideal future might look like—a vision many tribal college campuses have already embraced.

On a quiet summer afternoon, amid the rolling hills of the Fort Berthold Reservation of North Dakota, Lisa DeVille and her grandmother walked slowly along a line of bushes, picking juneberries. DeVille, who was 10 at the time, spotted something new: a wooden stake in the ground. She asked her grandmother what it meant.

The marker denoted a property line and indicated that there was oil beneath the surface, her grandmother explained. She predicted that, eventually, developers would scrape away the berry bushes, and oil wells would stand in their place.

DeVille’s grandmother was right. Today, towering flare stacks dot the skyline near her home, and giant flames illuminate the hills, burning off gasses from the wells. Kerry Hartman, academic dean and environmental sciences professor at Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College, the reservation’s tribally controlled college, said that with the amount of flaring that happens daily, the area resembles Kuwait in the 1990s—the period when Saddam Hussein directed Iraqi military forces to set the country’s oil wells on fire.

“We’re doing our part for global warming, if you know what I mean,” Hartman said.

DeVille knows. She first realized something was amiss when her neighbor asked her to look at her snow, which was discolored yellow. DeVille called Hartman at the college. The likely culprit, he said, was fly ash from the flaring. Worried that the ash was also seeping into their water, DeVille embarked on a mission.

With degrees in environmental science, business administration, and management, she now leads a group of landowners and concerned community members who are trying to hold the oil industry on the reservation to regulatory standards. The group, called Fort Berthold POWER (Protectors of Water and Earth Rights), also pushes for health and environmental impact studies.

“I just want them to be held accountable, and I want to educate our children and develop a curriculum for them. That’s not happening today, and I see how it’s changed our people,” DeVille said. “We are sovereign, but we have no clue.”

• • •

Although Fort Berthold represents a small percentage of North Dakota’s land base, the reservation’s 1,861 active wells now generate 22 percent of the state’s total oil output, according to the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources. Nationally, tribal lands make up only 2 percent of the United States, but contain an estimated one-third of the country’s coal, oil, gas, and uranium. This, in theory, gives tribes tremendous political clout. Yet Native nations often struggle to participate as equals in negotiations, or benefit equitably in the profits generated.

At the same time, tribes—like the nation as a whole—must also weigh the pros and cons of extractive industries. Some, like Fort Berthold, have allowed or actively encouraged mining and drilling, grateful for the resulting jobs and revenue. Others prohibit extraction for cultural, environmental, and public health reasons. The decision-making process is never easy. Disputes erupt over tangible issues like land rights and royalties, and can uncover disagreements that reflect competing values and economic priorities within tribal nations. 

Similar battles over land use and energy policies occur across the country. A thousand miles to the south, The Navajo Nation is facing the likely shuttering of the Navajo Generating Station (the west’s largest coal-fired power plant, located in Page, Arizona) and a loss of 500 jobs due to lack of demand for coal.

Not far from the station, meanwhile, the Trump Administration reduced the size of Bears Ears National Monument, a sacred site for the Diné and Ute people, in order to expand drilling and mining; many view the move as an attack on Native American faith practices. And in the north, people on Standing Rock, Rosebud, and White Earth Reservations are fighting giant pipelines such as the Keystone XL, Dakota Access, and Enbridge Line 3 that would threaten valuable waterways and agricultural lands, as well as sacred sites.

• • •

Press coverage of Keystone XL and other contested projects often focus on tribal opposition to development. However, for tribes the underlying issue is control—the ability to determine for themselves how to manage their own land. “We are a nation within a nation,” said Perry H. Charley of the Navajo Nation, director and senior scientist at Diné College’s Environmental Outreach and Research Institute. “We have our own laws, and it is up to us to be vigilant in those.”

For the Navajo Nation, vigilance includes documenting and mitigating the damage caused by decades of uranium mining on reservation lands. Between 1944 and 1986, mining corporations extracted 4 million tons of uranium from Navajo land, as raw material for the development of atomic weapons. As the Cold War receded, corporations abandoned more than 500 mines, leaving piles of radioactive tailings that contribute to disproportionately high rates of kidney failure and cancer within the tribe.

Charley has worked closely for decades with tribal leaders and the Environmental Protection Agency to study uranium’s impact on Navajo lands. The mess is so dire that one company, Anadarko Petroleum along with its subsidiary Kerr-McGee, has paid the Navajo Nation $1 billion towards cleanup—even as mines continue to leak and threaten the Diné people. The EPA is now working with local researchers and tribal leaders to identify the mines that pose the greatest threats to residents, livestock, land, and water.

With a $429 million grant from the EPA, Charley’s first-of-its-kind livestock study will supply some of those answers. He’s looking at how the abandoned uranium mines may be impacting the Navajo people’s source of domestic meat—mainly cattle, sheep, and goats. Charley will lead students from Diné College in partnering with students and professors from Northern Arizona University and the University of New Mexico. They’ll test livestock for heavy metals and radionuclides, assess the findings, and report the data to the EPA and tribal leaders.

“I’m trying to find out the answers to the degree of contamination that continues to linger out here. It’s been a lifelong process,” Charley said.

• • •

To secure their rights as a sovereign nation, the Navajos in 1975 also established the Council of Energy Resource Tribes (CERT). Twenty-five tribes—collectively holding 40 percent of the nation’s mineable uranium, 30 percent of its coal, and 4 percent of its oil and gas—joined. CERT, somewhat like OPEC, allowed the tribes to speak with one voice and gain greater leverage with the federal government and industry.

The group made great strides in protecting Native interests, said Montana State Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, a Crow tribal member who represents the reservation. Prior to CERT, Stewart-Peregoy said the federal government “would set the prices and basically didn’t allow the Crow or Navajo Nation to get their own expertise or work through the process. [CERT] had energy lawyers who were able to help negotiate.”

Within a few years, however, some tribes left the organization, questioning whether the council’s funding from the federal government impaired its credibility and worrying that they might be forced into mining. CERT still exists but isn’t nearly as active, which is a lost opportunity, Stewart-Peregoy said.

“We sit on the resources. Every reservation within Montana, all seven reservations, has a resource,” she said. “Yet, we’re being outsourced all the time. Other entities are making decisions for us and are making decisions that become obstacles. There are no partnerships. If there were partnerships, that would move the tribes further along.”

A well being drilled near Williston, North Dakota. Over 1,800 wells are now in operation on the Fort Berthold Reservation. Photo: Lindsey Gira/Wikimedia Commons.

Without a unified voice, individual tribes pursue their own interests, relying on available information. On the Fort Berthold Reservation, the tribal council’s decision to embrace oil stemmed from an attitude of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” argued Kandi White, a tribal member who heads the Native Climate and Energy Campaign for the Indigenous Environmental Network.

However, she added, “it’s a blanket statement to say a ‘tribe’ supports oil and gas. It’s not necessarily the people; it’s the council. They didn’t understand the full complexities of hydraulic fracking. The oil and gas industries took full advantage of us.”

Oil has even seeped into the culture on Fort Berthold, White said. “Oil and gas industry people come into fourth and eighth grade classrooms. They have oil rig naming contests and teach how technology works. They don’t talk about the negative impacts.”

Meanwhile, environmental harm and health risks are not always acknowledged. “People are starting to get sick,” White said. “So many kids are sick with asthma and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Radiation is being brought up with waste water. Cattle, horses, and sheep are dropping over dead.”

DeVille has gotten sick, too, with a months-long cough brought on by flaring. “The doctor says they see about 16 of these a day. They call it ‘The Bakken Cough.’”

At age 20, White was diagnosed with a rare, stage 4 sarcoma. She said clinicians at the Mayo Clinic analyzed her biopsy and reported to White that they’d never seen a sarcoma of her type, in a subcutaneous layer instead of attached to muscle or bone. White underwent major surgery that left a hole in her stomach. Determined to live her life as she always had, she returned to school two weeks later at the University of North Dakota. Her medical team told her she was officially cured ten years later.

“During that time, I learned that the stuff happening on the reservation wasn’t normal. The amount of people around me that were sick all the time? That wasn’t normal. That was from old oil booms and coal-fired power plants,” she argued. “But when we start pushing back on regulations—flaring rules, methane rules—we suddenly don’t have so much sovereignty. We give so much of our sovereignty away.”

But it’s important to remember that no tribe is a monolith. White, DeVille, and others actively work to address public health issues and push for safety protocols and documentation, but many tribal members are either quietly pro-extraction or visibly—as in the case of the Crow Nation’s leadership—support President Donald Trump in his pro-coal agenda. Their reasons vary and go deeper than their wallets. Some see natural resources as a way to gain not only a job but a career. They want security and to never “be that poor again that I will live on deer meat,” as Kenneth Brien, Crow Nation director of energy and mineral development, told Reuters in 2017. They want hope and to exercise their power as a sovereign nation.

White said she doesn’t want to have tension with people who feel differently than her. “It’s because they don’t get it or they’ve been lied to. In reality, no matter which way we look at it, we’re all in the same boat here. But it’s about never giving up hope. When you lose hope, that’s when you consent to defeat.”

• • •

Defeat doesn’t seem to be a concept DeVille has ever considered. And she’s not considering it for her children or grandchildren, either.

“I always ask my children, ‘What is your legacy going to be? How do you want your children to remember you?’ I ask the council the same thing,” DeVille said.

She thinks back on the first community survey she and her husband conducted in 2012, along with teachers from the local grade school. They listened to people’s concerns about flaring, dust control, and animal migrations. Based on their findings, DeVille wrote an essay and submitted it to the tribal council. She wanted to know: Who manages the clean-up protocols for toxic events, such as oil spills? What are the limitations regarding flaring?

“We had a benzene spill by here a few years ago, and benzene is very toxic. You need to evacuate a mile radius. But did they do this? It’s really a challenge because I haven’t worked for the tribe, but I’m finally deciding I want to help [Tribal Chairman] Mark [Fox]. He said he would hire me, to create environmental law and policy,” DeVille said.

DeVille recognizes the reality her tribe is facing. The oil industry sold people on the promise of jobs and money—“sovereignty by the barrel” as former tribal chairman Tex Hall framed it in 2014, during the annual Bakken Oil and Gas Expo. Having grown up poor herself, DeVille said she understands the allure of natural resource development. Extraction isn’t her personal ideal, but she wants to make the system better.

She thinks back on that day she spent picking juneberries with her grandmother, before any of this began, when the oil on Fort Berthold remained locked away underground. And then she thinks of her grandmother now. The woman who warned DeVille about men someday coming for their land? She signed away her own drilling rights to developers in 2008—for $110 per acre, “when the surrounding white people were getting $2,000 to $3,000” per acre, DeVille said, citing the lease her mother’s boyfriend signed.

DeVille said she understands what motivated her grandmother, but that the process could have been done differently. “I believe in fairness and equity.”

“They told her, ‘You’re going to be one of the richest elders here.’ But where’s the remediation? Where’s the lawyer here to sign with her? I know we’re in great need of money because we grew up poor, so this was a way out,” DeVille said. “But this oil and gas money has changed our people. It’s made us live in the now instead of thinking about the future. We’re sacrificing a lot.”

Despite how dire the situation may seem, White focuses on the bigger picture. “Sure, I’m frustrated with my tribal council, but I don’t give up on telling them things and interjecting. They’re hearing it, even if they don’t admit it. We shouldn’t be concerned for what we can do in our own lifetime. You think seven generations back and seven generations ahead.”

Katie Scarlett Brandt, a freelance writer based in Chicago, is a regular contributor to Native Science Report.

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