While a big deal was made several years ago when the outgoing Bush administration moved to allow energy exploration on the doorstep of some national parks in Utah, relatively little has been heard about oil drilling on the Blackfoot Reservation next to Glacier National Park.
In the Utah matter, a series of leases issued in the waning days of the Bush administration was criticized for the proximity of some leases to Canyonlands or Arches national parks, or Dinosaur National Monument or Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
Just weeks after he had been confirmed as Interior secretary in February 2008, Ken Salazar put a hold on the leases. Secretary Salazar said the $6 million worth of leases in question needed a more thorough environmental review to determine whether their development would imperil Arches and Canyonlands national parks or Dinosaur National Monument
After reviewing the 77 leases, the deparment issued a document stating that a lack of interagency communications was behind the proximity of the leases, and called for "increasing the level of coordination and collaboration in dealing with oil and gas leasing and development, both at the Federal level and the state level; studying the use of interdisciplinary field reviews for all proposed lease sales; and improving interdisciplinary participation in identifying lease parcels to be offered."
One lease that had been approved was almost entirely within the canyon cut by the Colorado River east of Arches National Park, according to the findings.
The Glacier situation is significantly different, however, in that the leases are on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, not federal lands.
Tony Bynum, a professional photographer whose backyard is Glacier National Park, is working on a documentary of the ongoing drilling. Here's an update on the projects from him:
In the past two years over 30 new exploratory wells have been drilled on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. A few have been drilled within a few miles of Glacier National Park on the east side. I have heard estimates ranging from 80 to 100 wells along the western edge of the reservation, the area closest to Glacier Park, for full field development.
Currently, each well undergoes an Environmental Assessment (EA) on a per well basis. There is no comprehensive analysis of the potential impacts to the social, economic, or environment from full field development. In other words, there is no Environmental Impact Statement in which to analyze cumulative impacts. Therefore, there is little information available to anyone about what the future might look like.
Moreover, it’s only now, after more than 30 wells have been drilled that people are becoming engaged.
To my knowledge, there has not been an industry or tribal sponsored public meeting or public hearing to discuss oil drilling on the Reservation. The only information we get is though EA's and a few public, and state sponsored discussions. The EA's are made available at a location in Browning, Montana. No one is sure what full development will look like, or if it will even occur. We do know that there are about 40 more wells planned over the next year for a total of 70. We really are due a more comprehensive study of the potential impacts.
A few issues that an EIS could include:
*wildlife habitat, including impacts to threatened and endangered species like the grizzly bear;* water quality and quantity - a lot of water is required for hydraulic fracturing, which is the only economically viable processes for recovering light-tight oil from the Bakken Shale zone;
* potential for groundwater pollution from fracking;
* other environmental concerns such as air pollution from dust, and emissions from diesel engines, and heavy truck traffic;
* impacts to the federal class I area under the Clean Air Act (Glacier Park is a Federal Class I area - the highest level of protection from air pollution, Class one is a visibility standard, not a human health standard);
* flaring, and off gassing from the well during and after fracking;
* social and economic impacts associated with the numbers of new people and activities that will demand products, and services, and their impacts on the existing infrastructure, like roads;
* cultural resources and historical areas;
* light and visual pollution.
If the oil exploration involved only a few oil wells that would be one thing, but it's not. This is about a complete overhaul and industrialization of our landscape as we know it. An EIS would help us look at the potential impacts of full scale production and build out - which some have said could include as many as 800 wells in the next 10 years across the entire Blackfeet Reservation - with about 100 of those being within the grizzly bear recovery zone, (basically the area west of the Duck Lake Road) and the area closest to Glacier National Park.
Even with all of that in mind, I remain optimistic. The Blackfeet People have been here a long time. They also have a right to develop their resources, but what alarms me is that if history repeats itself, and I have no reason to believe it won't, this boom and bust cycle will once again play out along the Rocky Mountain Front, and the border of Glacier National Park, just as it has all over the world. The resources will be drained, the people will be left to deal with the legacy by people whose only goal was to make money. Let me be clear, money is not bad. However, the people who stand to make most of it, do not have a stake in the future of this landscape no more than a barber cares about the future of the hair he takes off the top of my balding head.
When the oil is gone, the industrialized landscape created, what will our future here be?
For more photos and information on this development, check out Mr. Bynum's website.