It’s easy to say yes to development in Indian Country, but it’s hard to say no. The past tribal administration on Fort Berthold Indian Reservation gave its unqualified yes to the largely unregulated development of its oil and gas resources.
And why not — it’s estimated that the tribe has received more than $315 million in tribal tax revenues from this development, not to mention the hundreds of millions of dollars in oil royalty payments paid to allotted mineral owners and the tribe itself over the past several years.
Development has transformed the tribe into one of the nation’s wealthiest.
Tribal sovereignty arguably grew with each barrel of oil produced on the reservation.
Why then should the new tribal administration consider saying no to this development that has produced so much for the tribal people’s hopes and dreams?
The harsh reality is that this development can no longer be sustained for the following reasons:
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1) Bakken oil prices, which have already declined some 25 percent in the past several months, will continue to decline in light of the growing recession in Europe and the Saudi government’s decision to flood the market with low-priced oil;
2) Non-Indian development interests will likely challenge the tribe’s planned anti-gas flaring regulations, as well as its other regulatory initiatives, as beyond its jurisdictional power;
3) Environmentally and economically questionable projects, such as the proposed Thunder Butte Oil Refinery, mistakenly assume that the tribe will receive upward of $450 million in new tax revenues in 2015; and
4) New investment in oil production within the Bakken will decline substantially if the price of oil sinks below $80 per barrel, according to the state mineral authority.
In light of these considerations, what do the tribal people expect of their future tribal administration? They expect it to protect their most important resource: their sovereignty. This all-important resource must not be traded away in the vain pursuit of future oil revenues and royalty payments. Even so, the tribal people expect the new administration to develop their oil and gas resources in a sound manner.
The success of the new tribal administration will be measured by its ability to develop the tribe’s vast resources while protecting the sovereign interests of its people.
(Ray Cross is an enrolled tribal member of the MHA Nation and a retired law professor who served as tribal attorney from 1982-88.)