Ft. BERTHOLD, N. D. — It is time for a fracked oil and gas moratorium on Ft. Berthold and Standing Rock Indian reservations. Hundreds of municipalities, counties, provinces and countries have passed such bans, and Indian Country needs to do the same.

A road trip I took convinced me. I ended up in Ft. Berthold, after riding horseback with family, friends and allies to raise awareness about a fracked oil pipeline intended to come from North Dakota to my reservation of White Earth to the east. I wanted to see what was going on at the far end of the pipeline and understand the nature of this oil production. I was pretty alarmed.

I discovered as many as 200,000 acres are being considered for fracking at Standing Rock. Further west, Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara territory at Ft. Berthold is the sweet spot for Bakken crude oil. About 20 percent of North Dakota’s oil production is coming from this reservation. The state has l9, 000 oil wells.

State Director of Mines Lynn Helms explained to me that one-sixth of North Dakota’s l93 drilling rigs are at Ft. Berthold, 14 of them on trust lands and l4 on fee lands.  There is l, 250 active and producing wells on the reservation, with another 2, l50 leased and ready to drill.  These wells soon will be in the “harvest phase of production,” Helms says.

Everywhere the reservation is lit up with gas flaring from the wells, like the omnipresent lidless Eye of Sauron, the dark lord in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

That is what we see.  What we also see is a huge change in wealth on the reservation.

In fact, things have been going so well that the tribal council, which five years ago was facing a $200-million debt, is now rolling in dough. Tribal Chairman “Chief Red Tipped Arrow” Tex Hall, who just lost a primary election, is rumored to be a millionaire.

The tribal council purchased an l49-passenger yacht.  That is a yacht to take senators like Heidi Heidkamp and oil company executives out and about on Lake Sakakawea, which drowned their culture on the Missouri River banks. The yacht sits quietly on a dock by the casino. No fanfare today.

Ft. Berthold is the tribal epicenter of hydraulic fracking. Despite industry claims, it is a big experiment, made possible because of a perfect storm: an entire lack of federal, state or tribal regulation, as well as unlimited access to water and air into which everything is dumped.

The 2005 Energy Policy Act had something in it called the Halliburton Amendment. That amendment exempted the oil and gas industry from most major environmental laws.

The industry now has special exemptions from: CERCLA or the Superfund Act; RCRA, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which manages hazardous waste; the Safe Drinking Water Act; the Clean Water Act, which maintains the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation's waters; the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Clean Air Act.

Under the Clean Air Act, the exemptions cover emissions from any oil or gas exploration or production well (with its associated equipment) and emissions from any pipeline compressor or pump.

The exemptions have worked out pretty well for industry, and one might argue, for the short term leaseholder and royalties. Not so for those trying to protect the environment.

Fort Berthold Reservation Environmental Director Edmund Baker has been a bit challenged in his regulation of the fracking industry.   On July 8, what was known as the Crestwood spill was discovered. About a million gallons of radioactive and highly saline water was leaking from a pipe and headed to a tributary of Lake Sakakawea.  Industry officials, joined by Chairman Hall, talked about how, fortuitously, all had been saved by three beaver dams.  Let’s just say, “Leave it to beaver” may be a rather simplistic environmental protection plan.

The spill was found after going on for quite a while, like the 800,000- gallon Tioga oil spill, which was discovered about two months after it had started seeping out of a quarter size hole in a pipe.

The Crestwood spill is estimated to be well over a million gallons of highly saline and radioactive water. Environmental Director Baker has not been able to review any of the spill data. That data is held by the Tribal Council.

“…My officers had asked if they could get copies of the samples….my officers were denied …I don’t have the data, I don’t have any solid numbers…  I never received anything,” he says.

Baker’s job is already difficult, being as the reservation hosts l,200 or so wells, and twice as many are underway -- not to mention a pretty substantial waste stream from the fracking industry. The wastes are not just water-, or air-borne; they are also radioactive.

Fracking involves the use of immense amounts of water -- hundreds of millions of gallons per well. One company, Southwest Energy Resources, told reporters that what’s involved in fracking is basic chemicals you could find in your house.  That would be, it seems, if you were running a meth lab.

Water used by fracking companies is laced with over 600 toxins and carcinogens. Those chemicals are considered trade secrets and are not subjected to federal scrutiny. This has become a bit of a problem.

Much of the polluted water is being pumped into deep underground caverns, by the trillions of gallons.  In Colorado, one injection well alone holds over a trillion gallons.  Injected.  The data from North Dakota is hard to come by, and is barely emerging, but Colorado’s data has been probed by a host of concerned citizens.

Shane Davis, who directs a Colorado organization called Fractivist, traveled with me.  Colorado is a few years down the road in fracking, with 54,000 wells, 22,000 of them in Weld County, where Shane lived.

Shane got sick from the wells, some 75 within a mile radius from his house. At least, he described a set of serious rashes, going blind for a week, major gastrointestinal problems, and a year-and-a-half of a bloody nose. Then he got angry and got busy: “I conducted an investigative study using un-redacted, official Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission Spill/Release Reports and found that 43 percent of all oil and gas related spills resulted in ground water contamination with chemicals like benzene, toluene, xylene, ethyl-benzene and many more in Weld County, Colorado,” he noted.

A report released in June by ProPublica found, “Over the past several decades, U.S. industries have injected more than 30 trillion gallons of toxic liquid deep into the earth, using broad expanses of the nation’s geology as an invisible dumping ground.” An interesting question was asked by reporters Joel Dyer and Jefferson Dodge in the Boulder Weekly, “With more than 30 trillion gallons of toxic waste having been injected into the inner earth, what happens if our belief that what goes down can’t come up is wrong?”

“Every single day, more than l00 million cubic feet of natural gas is flared away.  That’s enough to heat half a million homes. That’s as much carbon dioxide emitted as 300,000 cars,” Ft. Berthold tribal member Kandi Mossett observes, citing the inevitable greenhouse gas effect. “That’s crazy.”

There is twice as much flaring on the reservation as off the reservation. That’s to say that the lack of infrastructure has been surpassed by the speed of extraction.  Natural gas burned in flaring is a byproduct of crude oil. Without enough pipelines to transport the gas, at a state level, a third of what’s released each day -- worth $1.4 million -- goes up in smoke. Tribal members say as much as 70 percent of gas from wells on the reservation is flared.

This past winter in the polar vortex, the Bakken flared gas rich in propane, as Debbie Dogskin in nearby Standing Rock Reservation froze to death in a nationwide propane shortage, in part caused by the oil industry’s restructuring for tar sands oil.

According to Bloomberg News, “On a percentage basis, more gas was flared in the state [of North Dakota] than in any other domestic oil field and at a level equal to Russia and twice that in Nigeria.”

The health effects of what’s in that gas are also part of the problem.  “These are called VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, Mossett explains.  “They, the companies, have generously put up signs for us to tell us that the toxins are present in the air. What do we do? Just stop breathing, when we go by?”

A Colorado School of Public Health study by Dr. Lisa McKenzie found airborne hydrocarbons near oil and gas facilities include carcinogenic and endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) released one-half-mile away from the oil and gas facilities at levels that would increase human cancer rates exponentially.

Dr. Theo Colburn completed an air chemistry study, which similarly found high levels of EDCs being released by the fracking industry. Those make you sterile, and a few other things.  They are not to be trifled with. They include benzene, toluene, napthene, xylene, and many more.  They are largely invisible.

“A huge portion of the chemicals used in the fracking industry are protected as trademark secrets,” Davis notes. “This becomes important because if an active oil and gas well pad has an onsite issue, such as a blowout, the victims would not know the nature of the chemical contamination, and this puts the patient and the doctor in jeopardy. The burden of expense has been shifted to the general public to pay for the emergency response,” he adds.

Stating the obvious, rural and tribal health facilities are not prepared.

On May 27, Bloomberg News reported: “Shale debt has almost doubled over the last four years while revenue has gained just 5.6 percent.”

Benjamin Dell, managing partner of Kimmeridge Energy, a New York-based asset manager, comments, “The list of companies that are financially stressed is considerable.”

That might be a bit of a problem when it’s time to pay up for the damages.

Citizens in Colorado have enacted moratoriums on fracking in seven municipalities; New York and California are deep into battles over fracking. Nova Scotia has just banned fracking. Counties in England announced a ban in early September.

A lot of questions are being asked worldwide, and a lot of household faucet water is catching on fire with gas from fracking that has polluted the drinking supply.

Ft. Berthold needs a moratorium on new wells, and Standing Rock, the next reservation in line for possible fracking, needs a ban. It’s too risky, and our water is life.

Winona LaDuke is an Anishinaabekwe (Ojibwe) enrolled member and executive director of Honor the Earth, working internationally to raise public support and create funding for frontline native environmental groups. Contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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