That it was unprepared for the deluge is painfully obvious. The oil patch looks like the aftermath of a natural disaster. There are long lines everywhere, from gas stations to taco trucks, store shelves look ransacked and forget about getting a hotel room within a hundred miles. Man camps, the makeshift encampments for oil workers, crop up overnight in fields where cows graze. So many newcomers crash at the Wal-Mart parking lot in Williston – at least 100 vehicles from all over the country every night – that it’s almost becoming a neighborhood.
And traffic in the patch is like traffic nowhere else, not even in the nation’s biggest cities. It can take 90 jaw-clenching minutes to drive 30 miles. Pity the passenger car driver surrounded on every side by tankers, flatbeds and cement mixers. Everywhere you go, people are beleaguered and out of sorts.
Fort Berthold is suffering all the woes of the Bakken boomtowns, and many more.
The tribe is a federally recognized sovereign nation, which makes its challenges more complicated. North Dakota is creating a fund for road repairs and upgrades in the oil patch, for example, but, Fox said, the tribal nation is not eligible for the money.
Its biggest day-to-day problem is policing the reservation. Under Federal law, imposed by a 1978 Supreme Court ruling that has bedeviled Indian Country, tribal nations have no criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians.
So while police calls on Fort Berthold have more than doubled, many of the calls involve newcomers who are not tribal members and who tribal police lack the power to arrest.
Crime is up all over the oil patch. Police blotters in communities where a stolen bike was once noteworthy now list robberies, assaults, prostitution, drug trafficking and organized crime, not to mention many traffic accidents.
For a Fort Berthold tribal officer, answering a call can be a day’s work. The tribal force of 11 tribal officers patrols over 1,000 miles of road. Since the reservation includes about 150 miles of state highways and 660 miles of county roads, a tribal officer can call a sheriff’s department if an incident is on county land—the reservation includes parts of six counties—or they can call state police if the incident falls in their jurisdiction. Or they can call on federal officers, from the Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Dept. of Homeland Security, if non-tribal members commit crimes that fall under those entities’ jurisdictions.
It was an inefficient and sometimes ineffective system before the oil boom. Now, with law enforcement agencies all over the Bakken lands overburdened, there are not enough officers to handle every incident. The tribe is working with local and state law enforcement agencies and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to revamp its policing and develop a strategy to empower its force, such as cross-deputizing tribal police with sheriff’s departments.
What residents of Ft. Berthold say they miss most is their peace. Peace and quiet has always been Western North Dakota’s primary currency, the main answer hardy souls could pitch to those who might ask why anyone would live Way Out There. These days, long-time residents often complain that they no longer feel safe. They read stories in the papers, see warnings of registered sex offenders on community bulletin boards, bump into newcomers who don’t make eye contact.
It’s a culture shock on a reservation with five tight-knit villages, each with just hundreds of residents. People grow up here knowing which neighbor gets home when by the sound of their cars—the hum of a 4×4, say, or the putt-putt of an old Jeep.
Now, they hear rumors. “It’s kind of scary,” said Loren Fox, as he sold $6 Indian tacos under a white tent by his family’s trailer in the rural community of Mandaree.
He kept his daughters, two and four years old, tucked by his side.
“Before there was no problem,” said the 41-year-old Fort Berthold native. “But you hear stories—people coming around talking to kids and stuff.”
Loren Fox is torn between believing that oil is the best thing to happen to Fort Berthold and the worst. His cut from royalties he shares with a half dozen relatives for seven wells drilled on their land comes to about $2,000 a month. His wife receives between $400 and $900 a month for mineral rights her family holds on their ancestral land.
But Fox has lost three family members to car accidents with trucks in the last three years. He lost two nephews, 28- and 25 years old, within four months of each other, he said. In June, he lost a 40-year-old cousin to a crash with a semi.
He also laments the loss of wildlife. The tribe is canceling deer season this year for the first time.
“All the traffic,” Loren Fox said, “has scared the deer away, I guess.”
His guess is as good as anyone’s: no one is quite sure why the deer have disappeared. Of all the talk of all the problems in the oil patch, one barely hears a whisper about the possible environmental consequences of the fevered development.
Environmental advocates have been sounding the alarm on fracking for its potential to contaminate ground water, the amount of energy it uses (hundreds of millions of gallons of water per well) and its possible disruption to the earth. It has been linked to earthquakes in Oklahoma, Texas and Great Britain.
Cities and towns in the oil patch have had a problem getting a handle on all the accidental oil and wastewater spills that occur. The Three Affiliated Tribes are also trying to stem the deliberate dumping of chemical-laden wastewater along roads or in remote areas of the rez.
Tribal police were getting so many calls from people spotting trucks dumping toxic fluids– several each week, Dennis Fox said– that in August 2011 it imposed fines of up to $1 million for a third deliberate offense.
Then there are the gas fires.
All over the Bakken lands, startling fires rise above the hayfields, spewing natural gas into the atmosphere. The fires, or flares, are a byproduct of oil production. When fracked gas is released, so is natural gas, but since natural gas is going begging on the worldwide market, and building the infrastructure to capture the gas would be expensive, companies just burn it. The fires spew over two million tons of carbon dioxide into the air each year, the equivalent of nearly 400,000 cars.
The World Bank, which has been campaigning for 10 years to get nations such as Russia, Nigeria, Iran and Iraq to stop flaring, now ranks the United States as the fifth worst offender thanks to North Dakota’s oil boom.
Neither North Dakota nor the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation have rules limiting flaring. But the tribe does plan to capture the wasted natural gas. In July, it received the final permit approval to build a crude oil refinery, the first to be built in the continental United States in over 40 years. The tribe also plans to build a pipeline to move oil – and gas—to the refinery.
What tribal leaders do not want are more regulations. The Obama administration has proposed requiring that oil companies disclose the chemicals they use in fracking, a move tribal leaders say would slow down oil production.
Tribal leaders are determined to make the most out of this oil boom, which they see as the ticket to independence from the federal government. They remember all too well how the tribe missed out on the last oil craze.
In the 1980s, when North Dakota experienced a smaller, more conventional oil boom, the tribe was virtually shut out. Oil companies skipped the reservation because the federal government, which administers Indian lands, required that oil companies go through dozens of steps, taking many months, before granting permits. Outside the reservation, companies received permits within weeks.