FORT BERTHOLD, N.D. — With 28 rigs and 414 Bakken wells, Fort Berthold Indian Reservation is no longer a black, dark spot on the state’s oil boom map.
Thousands of semi trucks are roaring around the reservation, causing dust to hang heavy in the air. Industrial rigs jut upward into a hazy background of rugged buttes and the blue water of Lake Sakakawea.
The oil well count includes wells on both trust and fee land on the reservation.
On Tuesday, a convoy of vehicles carrying Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and a bevy of state and tribal leaders spun its own dust trail. The convoy toured the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation reservation to see how it is contributing to the country’s oil supply and the impact it’s having.
All but one of the reservation’s Bakken wells was drilled in the last three years, when a logjam of federal regulations and permits were streamlined into a one-stop shop in New Town. A permitting process that took years can now be done in as few as 45 days, said Jeff Hunt, chief of engineering for the Interior Department’s energy and mineral development.
A compact that lets the state collect a unified oil tax and redistribute 50 percent back to the tribes made drilling tribal land more attractive. That distribution is now totaling more than $7 million a month.
Salazar viewed oil drilling on the national grasslands Monday and after looking at a small, but intense drilling area on the reservation, he said he gets the picture.
“With energy comes impact. You can see it in the roads, in the cost of living, but there’s tremendous opportunity. There are no quick answers. It will take a partnership with the federal government, state and tribe,” he said.
Tribal Chairman Tex Hall, his voice and stature weakened by a recent serious illness, said it will cost more than $100 million to repair the oil damage to the reservation’s BIA road system.
The $1.7 million in annual BIA funds “is just a Band-Aid,” Hall said.
Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said he agreed more money is needed, but said he doesn’t agree the federal government is standing in the way of development on the reservation.
“I don’t know what we’re standing in the way of. This is a full-blown boom,” Conrad said. “Instead of sending $1 billion a day to buy oil from the Mideast, we can send it to the Midwest of our own country.”
Some federal regulations are lagging behind the state’s. The federal government doesn’t require disclosure of fracture treatment chemicals, like North Dakota recently started to, though Salazar said, “We’re working on that.”
Hunt, who provides technical assistance for drilling activity, said he and his staff are spending more time in the field, trying to site roads and well pads out in the rough terrain.
“The easy sites are gone. We’re encouraging multiple wells on a pad,” he said. One operator is planning 12 wells on a pad, while the average is four, he said.
Hunt said pipelines will start to catch up with new wells, but now about two-thirds of the reservation’s oil leaves the well on oil tanker trucks.
Fred Fox, who heads the tribal energy department, said he expects another 200 Bakken wells will be drilled by the end of the year and up to 900 more in the next five years.