Inside Energy: Ft. Berthold election

Nov 3, 2014

One third of the oil produced in North Dakota comes from the Fort Berthold Reservation. Since 2007, oil money has erased $125 million in debt and slashed a 70 percent unemployment rate to two percent today. But it’s also industrialized much of the reservation and brought traffic, crime and drugs. Tomorrow, tribal members will elect a new chairman, choosing between two candidates who question the pace of oil development.... From our Inside Energy team at Prairie Public, Emily Guerin reports.

GUERIN: Sonny Bear wears big white cowboy hat, boots and a green neckerchief. He raises horses on a ranch about 15 miles east of New Town, down a long gravel road that’s used more by oil trucks than ranchers these days. He snuffs out a cigarette and walks out onto his back porch (DOOR OPENING) to tally up all the oil wells (FADE IN Sonny: One there…) he can see.

Sonny BEAR: ...and there’s a couple up on the hill, see there’s another one a mile across. We’re pretty much surrounded on the north side.

GUERIN: Bear and his wife moved here in a year and a half ago to get away from the oil development that had encircled their old place.

BEAR: First it started with the roads, then of course the trucks came. And you know we lost a couple horses, so much dust, lung problems next.

GUERIN: When they first bought the new ranch, the closest wells were a couple miles away. But then Bakken caught up to them. Now, Bear’s horses are corralled less than a hundred yards from the closest well pad. And he’s frustrated with his tribal leadership….

BEAR:....they just opened up the country and let them start drilling any place they wanted, and it was just a big fiasco.

GUERIN: There’s a lot of people on the reservation who are increasingly tired of the oil boom -- and tired of outgoing tribal chairman Tex Hall, who lost in the primary. Both candidates for tribal chairman have picked up on calls for a change of pace….

MARK FOX: If industry cannot do what it’s supposed to do in protecting our environment...then darn it we’re going to have to slow them down!

GUERIN: That was candidate Mark Fox a recent debate in Bismarck. Fox is more openly critical of the oil industry than his challenger, Damon Williams, but both are calling for more tribal oversight.

DAMON WILLIAMS: We’ve had 4 years of all we wanted to do is brag about how many oil wells we had, yet at the same time nobody went back and tried to put regulations in place.

GUERIN: The tribal candidates are strikingly different than most North Dakota politicians -- who may condemn some of the negative social effects of the oil boom but would never suggest slowing down development. I asked both candidates to explain that difference.

DAMON WILLIAMS: The people being affected directly are literally our family. That’s what makes us a little different, we can’t separate ourselves.

GUERIN: That’s Damon Williams. Mark Fox says there’s another difference, too.

MARK FOX: Our people are strong, strong relationship to the land. Strong relationship to the water. Money and generation of revenue is really important, but not as much on the reservation.

GUERIN: Some of the best geology in the Bakken lies beneath the reservation. So oil companies are closely watching the election. That’s according to Lynn Helms, director of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources.

LYNN HELMS:They are deeply concerned about what the future holds for them on Fort Berthold.

GUERIN: But the industry does, of course, have fans on the reservation. (SNEAK IN REC CENTER SOUND) At the rec and fitness center in White Shield, kids are playing video games and air hockey -- brand new equipment all paid for with oil tax revenue.

KAREN LONE FIGHT: (HOLD AMBI UNDER) Things that we could never have gotten, never have gotten, before the Bakken.

GUERIN: Karen Lone Fight works for the tribal councilman from this district on the eastern part of the reservation -- far from the oil wells and traffic. On her boss’s desk, a tiny statue of an oil pumpjack. And out the window, construction. (CROSSFADE WITH AMBI OF CONSTRUCTION SOUNDS)

STEVE STENGER: We’re building a head start, a high school, and a community center here.

GUERIN: Steve Stenger is with the architecture firm building the project. (CONSTRUCTION FADE OUT) Even Rancher Sonny Bear admits he’s benefitted.

Sonny BEAR: Yeah, yeah we do.

GUERIN: His gorgeous new house, with its high ceilings and exposed beams? Paid for, in part, with oil royalties.

BEAR: But you know, if I could go back 8 years, I’d much rather have it the way it was.

GUERIN: Like North Dakota, Fort Berthold has become an energy state onto itself -- one that’s struggling to balance economic development and preservation of a traditional way of life.

For Inside Energy, I’m Emily Guerin.