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Biden climate push complicated by boom in Native American oil

Half of their 16,000 members reside on Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, which is located atop North Dakota's Bakken Shale Formation, one of the largest U.S. oil discoveries since decades.

The tribes have reaped unimaginable wealth from the drilling boom, more than $1.5billion and counting. They hope that it will continue for another 20-25 years. Federal data show that the boom has caused a nearly tenfold increase in oil production from Native American lands over 2009, which complicates President Joe Biden's efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

According to an Associated Press analysis, the U.S. government's oversight of tribal lands now causes greenhouse gases equivalent to 12 million vehicles per year through oil burning. In deference to the sovereign status of tribes, Biden exempted Native American lands form a suspension on new oil and gas leases on land managed by the government.

Louisiana's judge temporarily blocked suspension of June 15th, but the administration is still developing plans to extend the ban or make leases more expensive.

The United States' tribal lands are now producing more oil than 3% and there are huge untapped reserves. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to head a cabinet-level U.S. agency, faces pressure to help some tribes develop fossil fuels while also dealing with climate change that is affecting all Native communities.

"We are one of few tribes that has chosen to develop our energy resources. At the opening of a Fort Berthold cultural center and museum, tribal chairman Mark Fox said that it was his right. We can use those resources responsibly to ensure that our children and grandchildren have somewhere to call home for the next 100 generations.

In the mid-1800s, smallpox almost decimated the Arikara, Hidatsa, and Mandan tribes. Broken treaties meant that they lost most of their territory. A century later, the best lands on the Missouri River were submerged by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who created Lake Sakakawea. Many people fled their villages to seek refuge in New Town, which was located above the lake.

Leaders of the three tribes see oil as their salvation today and they want to continue drilling until it runs out and the world shifts away from fossil fuels.

They want the Biden administration's speedy approval of drilling permits, and to stop attempts to shut down a pipeline that transports most of the reservation oil to refineries.


Tribes that were not part of the drilling boom are now outspoken opponents to fossil fuels as climate changes worsen. The Standing Rock Sioux is located 100 miles (160 km) south.

Standing Rock is the Dakota and Lakota nation's home. It was the scene of a long-running standoff between law enforcement officials and protestors, including tribal officials who attempted to close down the Dakota Access Pipeline, which carries Fort Berthold crude oil.

The judge removed the government permit for the pipeline due to insufficient environmental analysis. He allowed crude oil to flow during a fresh review. Standing Rock demands that the government stop the oil flow for good. They fear that a ruptured pipeline could cause contamination to its drinking water.

The Sioux received foundation backing from the media to build a wind farm at Porcupine Hills. This is an area of buffalo grass and scrub oak with cattle ranches.

Fawn Wasin Zi is a teacher and chair of the Standing Rock renewable energy authority. The pipeline fight brings back bitter memories. Growing up, she heard her grandmother and father tell of the government dam that created Lake Oahe. She was horrified to see their house being destroyed by government agents, and then to not be able to get electricity or housing.

Wasin Zi, whose ancestors were led by Sitting Bull, the legendary Lakota leader, is determined to prevent the tribe from falling prey to a changing world where fossil fuels heat the planet and bring about drought and wildfire.

She said, "We must find a way that we can use the technology that is available right now,"

According to a drilling analysis by S&P Global Platts, only a dozen of 326 reservations in tribal America produce significant oil.

Bryan Newland was Biden's nominee for assistant secretary for Indian affairs. He told a U.S. Senate panel that the administration recognizes the significance of oil and gas to certain reservations and promised to let tribes decide how to develop resources.

Interior officials refused to answer interview questions about tribal energy plans. However, they said that tribes were consulted after Biden directed the department to "engage avec tribal authorities" in developing renewables.

Joseph McNeill Jr., Standing Rock's energy authority manager, stated that a conference call with Interior did not yield any pledges to support the tribe's wind projects. Fort Berthold officials stated that they have not received any offers from the administration.


Fort Berthold is still recovering from the ills that oil brought, including worse crime and drugs and tanker truck traffic, road deaths, oil spillages, and wastewater. Tribal members complain that stars are being lost in the light of well-flared waste gas.

But oil also brought about positive changes. Numerous projects were started as the tribes' funds grew. New schools, senior centers and parks are now part of the reservation. A $26 million greenhouse complex is being built using oil money. It will be heated with electricity generated from gas otherwise lost.

New Town's $30 million cultural center brings together the tribal fractured past with displays and artifacts. The sound studio records stories from elders who survived flooding and dam construction along the Missouri. One exhibit documents the oil boom that followed fracking, which allowed companies to tap into reserves that were once difficult to drill.

Delphine Baker, MHA Nation Interpretive Center Director, said that "Our little town, New Town" was transformed overnight. "We didn't have traffic lights growing up. It's almost like I moved to another town.


Standing Rock, located lower on the Missouri River, is plagued by high energy costs. There is no oil that can be extracted, nor gas or coal. Casinos are the second largest employer, after tribal governments. Revenues plummeted during pandemic.

"There is nothing here. There are no jobs. Nothing," stated Donald Whitelightning Jr., who lives near the Dakota Access Pipeline protest in Cannon Ball.

Whitelightning, a man who takes care of his mother in a small home, estimates that he can pay up to $500 per month for electricity in winter. North Dakota's high utility costs are a major strain on a reservation that officials claim has 40% poverty and 75% unemployment.

Anpetu Wi, which means "morning sun," is the tribe's wind project. Officials believe that the 235 megawatts, which would power roughly 94,000 homes, will double their annual income and provide fund benefits similar to those Fort Berthold receives from oil, such as housing, health care and more jobs.

Standing Rock's power authority has the ability to directly negotiate certain aspects of this project. It still needs Interior approval, as the U.S. holds tribal land in trust.


The Osage tribe in Oklahoma, the Navajo tribe in the Southwest, and Native corporations Alaska are all pushing for the Biden administration's cede power to energy development. They also want the government to allow tribes to conduct environmental reviews.

An Aneth field in southern Utah is home to operations of a Navajo company that brings in between $28 million and $35 million per year. James McClure (chief executive of the Navajo Nation Oil and Gas Co.) stated that the field has been active since the 1950s and likely has 30 more years of life.

Biden has been considering expanding to federal land in New Mexico or Colorado. Biden's efforts to suspend leases could slow down those plans. The company is also considering helium production.

The Osage people of northern Oklahoma have been drilling oil wells for over a century.

They are also considering renewables as they become more aware of the effects of global warming on energy markets. They want the Biden administration's speedy approval of drilling permits.

Everett Waller is the chairman of the tribe’s energy regulator. "I was not given a wind turbine. I was given an oilfield to protect."

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