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Upstream From Standing Rock, Tribes Balance Benefits, Risks Of Oil Industry

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T.J. Plenty Chief stands in front of one of the three semitrucks owned by his company, Red Road Trucking. The trucks operate in the Fort Berthold reservation oil fields, carrying everything from gravel to pipe to water needed for drilling. His business is based on the reservation, in New Town, N.D., where he lives.

While North Dakota's Standing Rock Sioux Tribe continues to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline, it's a somewhat different situation 150 miles northwest. There, alongside the same river, pipelines and oil development are for the most part welcomed on a different reservation.

On Fort Berthold, tribal members live right on top of pipelines — more than 4,000 miles crisscross the reservation, home to the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes that together call themselves MHA Nation.

The reservation lies in the heart of the Bakken formation oil patch, and like seemingly everything here, there's a cost-benefit analysis to make. On Fort Berthold, they've decided oil production — and the wealth that it brings in for now — is worth the risk.

"We are in this oil play already," says Edmund Baker, the tribal environmental director. "We want to be able to do it responsibly. We want to be able to do it competently. We want to show other tribes that it can be done."

A decade ago, there was almost no oil activity here, but today there are more than 1,400 wells on the Fort Berthold reservation. Dave Williams heads Missouri River Resources, the MHA-owned oil company.

"We're trying to create a nation that really sustains itself through economic development and through its own abilities," Williams says.

That economic development is visible in New Town, N.D., which has a lot of retail. Its traffic is heavy with pickups — a tell-tale sign we're in the oil patch.

Oil extraction is a way to help MHA's 15,000 tribal members be self-sufficient. There's a ton of money involved — upward of nearly $2 billion in revenue just since 2008.

T.J. Plenty Chief is among those benefiting. He owns three semis as part of his trucking business. He's supporting a family of 10, and says truck drivers here can make good money — more than $90,000 a year.

"Before the boom I had to work a lot harder, and work in other jobs I didn't really care for as much," Plenty Chief says. "Working at the casino or whatever."

But with that oil wealth has come a spike in crime, and $90,000 doesn't go as far as it used to, says Mark Fox, tribal chairman. To combat the rising cost of living, the tribe is providing new apartments for residents, a new health care system and payments of $1,000 to each tribal member three times a year.

And there are environmental risks. One million gallons of wastewater from hydraulic fracturing leaked from a pipeline in 2014, threatening the reservoir holding the reservation's drinking water.

"We sure as hell don't want to do it in such a way that we taint or diminish the value of our most important asset, which is water," Fox says.

Though they embrace oil production, tribal leaders also are embroiled in a dispute over pipelines, much like the Standing Rock Sioux to the south. They're concerned about a pair of new crude and natural gas lines slated to cross under the reservoir.

"We are not against all pipelines, the ones on our land," Fox says. "But what we are against is when pipelines come onto Fort Berthold through other entities and think they are going to develop or utilize pipelines without the approval of our tribe."

MHA Nation has tried to halt construction, but a federal judge is allowing work to continue, saying the company has the necessary permits from the Army Corps of Engineers — the same agency Standing Rock is fighting in court regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Amy Sisk reports for Prairie Public Broadcasting and for Inside Energy, a public media collaboration focused on America's energy issues.

Copyright 2016 Prairie Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Prairie Public Broadcasting.

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