Monday, January 23, 2012


Oil on the Blackfeet rez has been a hot issue for more than a century. From the beginning it has driven a wedge between the older, more traditional people who thought the US Government would protect their interests in a context they could not hope to understand and the younger more activist people who felt competent to learn whatever was necessary and take charge of their own decisions. This split was an opportunity -- as all splits are -- for wheelers/dealers/sneakers/traitors to increase their webwork of inside info and sweet deals. The antidote is knowledge, so I was delighted to see the GF Tribune add a regular feature, an Oil and Gas Report written by Darryl Flowers, who is the publisher of the Fairfield newspaper, The Sun Times.

I did not know that oil wells have names, but that’s how Flowers lists them. Here are some of the local wells he has mentioned so far:

Anschutz Exploration Corporation:

SW Browning 1-35H-32-11 in Glacier County, aiming for a depth of 11,725. It is a horizontal well, meaning (I suppose) that it is drilling sideways, one of the new capacities that seems likely to restore old wells.

Paisley 1-4-37-13 in Glacier County.

Rosetta Resources

Brandvold 3509-25-05, completed at 7,502 feet.

Glacier Farms 3207-22-12, 6,200 feet.

Benton Bench 16-5-28-4 is a vertical well by Primary Petroleum Company USA that is aiming for the Duperow formation at 5,000 feet.


New Miami 42-20H (west of Dupuyer) is using horizontal drilling to get at the Sweetgrass Arch and is actually producing oil. They expect to place as many as 17 wells to tap the Sun River Dolomite pay zone in the Madison formation.

Newfield Production

Peacemaker 1-5H (NW NW 5-33N-6W) in Glacier County went to 9,038 feet, shooting for the Nisku Formation,

Flowers contacted companies that provide the drilling rigs and they claimed there are about a thousand of them out there. I don’t know how many jobs that represents. One must count clericals and community impact like cafes and motels. The real boom is over on the Dakota border where the Bakken formation promises major strikes. Those small towns have now discovered the dark frontier side of boomtowns: a teacher out jogging as she was accustomed to do has disappeared, evidently into the tar pit of a couple of violent floaters who had come looking for work. People in Valier are salivating over the prospect of oil field money but not thinking much about having to start locking their doors and hire more peace officers.

Throwing such a big rock into our small ponds has a lot of impact. Rings of waves go out and out. One faction is insisting that we must provide more rentals to prevent boom-town trailer ghettos, and suddenly there are people trying to map out subdivisions and others figuring out whether their deceased grandma’s house might be rentable. Maybe the Panther Cafe or the motel might finally find buyers -- or maybe the present owners will take them off the market.

Here’s my amateur English teacher version of origins. Once upon a time there was a continent-wide not-very-deep ocean covering the whole prairie from here to the Midwest. At some point, due to plate tectonics, the continent tilted up along the Rocky Mountains and creased at the Mississippi River, which drained off the water. But the bitter alkali and salt remains in our soils and the water itself is in underground pools called aquifers, some of them sealed over with limestone formed by the zillions of years of tiny shells of animals that died in that shallow water.

Much of what we see now as land formations were once underwater and began life as reefs and atolls, home for little squiddy things as well as shelly things. All along the water’s edge or where bumps stuck up, there was vegetation and, to take advantage, browsers and then carnivores to eat the browsers. It was tropical here then, and there were no mammals because they hadn’t been invented yet. We’re talking dinosaurs and giant ferns.

When the weather or the meteorites or whatever killed all these carbon-based creatures -- plants and animals alike -- and then crushed them under millennia and millennia of geological developments, they became oil. So there are pockets of oil, of gas, and of water under the surface. Our small towns exist because of those water pockets or else because of the run-off from the mountains that at this point accumulate snow all winter. The snow load seems to be diminishing enough to stop creating glaciers or even maintaining them. So the pockets of water under the ground are more crucial and more non-renewable.

One of the ways to get more oil and gas out of the ground is to inject water into wells to make the pressure break up the solid rock formations into fractured, cracked rock. (Frakking.) This injected water is loaded with chemicals. There is no real way to tell whether this undrinkable and harmful water will seep over into the pockets of water we’re using at wells and watering ponds for livestock. In some cases the frakking has opened pathways for gas to get into water dramatically enough that one can set fire to what comes out of the kitchen tap. Also, the injections are highly pressurized and there is some evidence that they can trigger local earthquakes. All these consequences are irreversible: no backing out of frakking.

Here’s where the rez comes back into the picture. Oil companies started contacting people early to get contracts before the bad publicity got around. They hired people to comb the records for people who didn’t live here any more, to find and call them. And they hired older people with some education and a big need for money to get to the more traditional tribal members who might be susceptible to a pitch about how harmless frakking is.

As statewide pushback, the Montana Farmers Association has begun offering workshops on leasing that are drawing big crowds in sub-zero weather. A category of people called “landmen,” who had mostly cleared out when the last wave of drilling ended, are now back. Sort of like the “locaters” who helped the homesteaders find good claims. Some reliable, some not. It’s hard to tell when the laws and regulations are complex.

Flowers’ articles are hard to read until one has a little experience. It can’t be harder than the sports analysis or politics, can it? In many ways it’s the same thing: winners and losers, the inevitable split everywhere.


mscriver said...

For those interested in this topic, you might want to visit This is the website of a photographer who is based in East Glacier -- NOT Bynum! He is making it a point to photograph all the drilling sites and their development over time. This is a monitoring project as well as a comment on the forces of the West since industrialization came to this broad and lucrative landscape.

Prairie Mary

Rebecca Clayton said...

West Virginia's coal and gas extraction is not the same as your neck of the woods, but I thought you might find information of interest in these two blogs from the Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV is our state capital, not the same place as the famous Charleston, SC)

I've learned about coal mining in China and hydrofracking out West as well as more local stuff.