On the evening of Aug. 31 at the Beaver Painted Lodge building of the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Destini Vaile plans to show a film called “Gasland.” Released last year, the documentary critically examines the impacts of natural gas drilling through the process of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”
Vaile, 30, grew up on the Blackfeet Reservation, and over the last two years she has grown more and more concerned about the increasing oil and gas exploration underway there.
“It goes back to values that I grew up with,” she said. “A respect for the land and realizing that in order for us to be healthy and survive to the best of our ability the land around us also has to be healthy.”
Nor is Vaile alone. In recent weeks conservation groups, along with Glacier National Park officials, have registered concern regarding the potential impacts on air, water and wildlife from fracking on the Blackfeet Reservation, particularly along its western edge, which abuts the eastern border of the park.
A recent letter by Glacier Superintendent Chas Cartwright submitted as part of the environmental assessments for the drilling of two exploratory wells listed the risks to bull trout and grizzly bear habitat, as well as impacts on air quality and views as some of the potential effects on the park of drilling to the east.
“The Park believes an (Environmental Impact Statement) is needed to address the entire scope and plan for exploratory and permanent oil and gas development,” Cartwright wrote. “Cumulative impacts to park and Reservation resources cannot be adequately addressed on a well by well basis.”
But on the Blackfeet Reservation, where unemployment sits at close to 70 percent, the promise of high-paying jobs and royalties from natural resource development could benefit the Tribe in powerful ways.
Multiple attempts by the Beacon over the course of last week to reach Blackfeet Tribal officials for comment on the future of drilling on the reservation – including at the Blackfeet Department of Commerce’s oil and gas development office, the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council and the Blackfeet Fish and Wildlife Department – were unsuccessful. Gerald Wagner, director of the Blackfeet Environmental Office, declined to comment for this story.
Three oil companies are undertaking most of the drilling on the Blackfeet Reservation at present: Denver-based Anschutz Exploration Corp. and Rosetta Resources and Newfield Exploration Co. of Houston. Though the drilling is simply exploratory at this point, with no definitive results announced, the fact that the Blackfeet Reservation makes up part of the Bakken Shale formation – which is currently spurring an oil boom in Eastern Montana and Western North Dakota – means a good chance exists that the wells on the Blackfeet Reservation could lead to steady production, along with millions in royalties for the Tribe.
But it’s the method by which exploration is occurring that has some, both inside and outside the Blackfeet Reservation, concerned. Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” involves pumping millions of gallons of water, chemicals and sand into the ground to break apart the rock, releasing natural gas. The sand particles hold the fissures open, allowing the gas to flow up out of the well. These wells can go as far, vertically, as 10,000 feet below the surface before turning horizontal and extending further.
Fracking results in the waste product of vast quantities of water containing the chemicals used during the process. This wastewater is then stored in a pit or tank until it can be trucked elsewhere for treatment.
Critics of the process say fracking can contaminate drinking water underground, or when the chemically laden waste products are spilled on the surface. That potential for contamination is among the reasons conservationists involved with Glacier National Park and the surrounding area are taking a critical approach to the exploratory drilling.
“These lands are so crucial to the whole ecosystem and we can’t ignore that they’re here because they’re on the reservation,” Lou Bruno, vice president of the Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance, which formed 20 years ago in response to attempts to drill along the Rocky Mountain front southwest of the Blackfeet Reservation, said. “They’re more important, biologically, than the stuff on the west side of the park.”
Opponents of the drilling also take issue with the way Anschutz, which holds leases closest to Glacier National Park, has been conducting environmental assessments on a well by well basis. Rosetta Resources and Newfield Exploration have already submitted to lease wide reviews of their impacts. A call to Anschutz’s Denver office for comment was not returned.
In a letter on Anschutz’s Pine Ridge project to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, one of the agencies overseeing the drilling, Will Hammerquist and Michael Jamison of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) wrote that a comprehensive, lease-wide review of Anschutz’s potential drilling is necessary to understand the potential impacts.
“Nothing about the Pine Ridge proposed exploration project – or the general industrialization of Glacier Park’s eastern entrance – should be assumed to be insignificant,” they wrote. “These exploratory wells, if authorized, will have far reaching consequences. Not only do the wells threaten to adversely impact an undeveloped area renowned for its backcountry and wildlife values, but they also have the potential to usher in a new full-field industrial development.”
Conservationists also question where the vast quantities of water required for fracking will come from, since the Milk and St. Mary rivers are over-allocated, and Browning’s municipal water system sometimes suffers from shortages.
Despite the concerns, however, it is widely recognized that the Blackfeet are a sovereign people with full control over their lands.
“We, as a group, can’t do much on the reservation,” Bruno said. “They’re a sovereign nation and all we can do is try to educate and let the rest of the world know what’s going on.”
That’s why Vaile, who just signed a short-term contract with the NPCA to gather opinions on the Blackfeet Reservation and raise awareness about the drilling, plans to start collecting signatures for a petition opposed to it.
“I’ve been getting a lot of support,” Vaile said. “We’re going to go to tribal meetings and try to get the council members informed and concerned about what’s going on with the fracking.”
“I’ve seen a lot of enthusiasm for actually banning the practice of fracking on the reservation,” she added.
Vaile intends to draw as many members of her community as possible to see the “Gasland” film, and hopes to screen it in East Glacier, Heart Butte and other locations.
As for the promise of jobs created by oil and gas development, she’s not persuaded.
“I guess you just have to weigh that against the bigger picture,” Vaile said. “These wells, it’s very short-term. We’re not going to be profiting from these forever.”