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Shale Oil Boom in North Dakota is Impacting Native Americans Especially Hard

Tribal members complain they aren’t receiving profits from oil rush

In just five years North Dakota (Read our Winter cover story, “Boom!”) has gone from a quiet agricultural state to a rapidly industrializing energy powerhouse. By the middle of 2012 North Dakota was producing about 660,000 barrels of oil a day, more than twice as much as just two years before. That number makes North Dakota the second largest oil producing state in the United States, after Texas.

Mandaree Photo by Andrew FilerActivists from North Dakota's reservation town of Mandaree, which is mostly poor, say none of the
oil money collected by either the tribe or the state of North Dakota comes back to their town.

North Dakota’s political establishment — Democrats and Republicans alike — view the oil boom as a huge success. Thanks largely to the new oil play in the Bakken, the state’s economy is surging. More than 41,000 workers were hired in North Dakota between 2008 and 2012, and the state has the lowest unemployment rate in the country. National leaders are pleased, too. All the oil pouring out of North Dakota has markedly improved US energy security. As recently as 2005, the US was importing 60 percent of the oil it consumes; today imports account for 42 percent of consumption.

But not everyone is happy about the situation. Traveling across northwest North Dakota it is not difficult to find farmers and ranchers who are outraged by what they are experiencing. Many North Dakotans view the oil rush as an assault on their communities and the places they love. The current oil rush seems to them different than the last oil boom that took over the state in the 1970s. The petroleum in the Bakken Shale is what the fossil fuel industry refers to as “tight oil,” or what environmentalists call “extreme energy.” Like the petroleum locked in the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, shale oil is hard to get at even with the most advanced technologies. All of the extra effort involved in extraction means that Bakken oil has an especially heavy impact — on water resources, on land use, on wildlife and habitat, on the fabric of communities. The oil rush in North Dakota has turned life there inside out. As White Earth rancher Scott Davis puts it: “We’re collateral damage.”

The degradation of western North Dakota is especially poignant for the 12,000 Native …more

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