Story at a glance
- The Trump administration has made several moves to push oil drilling before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.
- The federal government is allowing five oil and gas companies to drill 5,000 wells over the next decade in tribal land in northeastern Wyoming.
- Multiple tribes are protesting the decision, citing a violation of federal law.
The Powder River Basin sits in northeastern Wyoming, extending into southeastern Montana and bordering the Dakotas. The former hunting grounds of the Oglala Lakota Sioux, its rivers feed into multiple federally protected Indian reservations.
It also contains one of the largest deposits of coal in the world. The largest mined source in the country is about to get bigger after a federal government decision to permit oil and gas companies to develop up to 5,000 new oil and natural gas wells within a 1.5 million-acre project area over the next decade.
READ MORE STORIES ABOUT NATIVE AMERICANS
“The Converse oil and gas project would provide thousands of jobs in Wyoming and help boost our state’s economy,” said Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi (R). “It is important that we continue the responsible development of our public lands so projects like this can strengthen our country and benefit the American people.”
It’s unclear how many of those jobs will go to the indigenous communities that have been disproportionately devastated by the coronavirus pandemic. But these tribes will inherit any potential environmental impacts to the region, including air and water pollution, putting sacred land at risk.
“The inevitable destructive and damage may well be perpetrated upon non-renewable cultural, religious, historic-prehistoric resources, along with the destruction of our sacred sites and burials because of the limiting the comments by OST and other tribes,” the Oglala Sioux Tribe (OST) said in public comments, responding to the Bureau of Land Management's environmental impact statement.
The tribe is one of several protesting the decision, saying that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) failed to properly consult local tribes in their environmental impact study, violating federal law.
“Tribal consultation is a highly troubled process to start with, because it often uses a lot of tribal resources and they don’t get anything back, but BLM gets to check its legal box,” Kelly Fuller, energy and mining campaign director for the Western Watersheds Project, told the Casper Star-Tribune. “They take up a lot of the tribes’ time without resulting in meaningful differences.”
Some protests argue the Converse County oil and gas project impedes on tribal land, while others, represented by the Great Plains Tribal Water Alliance, raised potential violations of water rights.
“I think underneath all of this is the problem that the U.S. has never had a reckoning yet about the genocide of Indigenous people and the theft of their lands,” Fuller, of the Western Watersheds project, told the Casper Star-Tribune. “We’ve never had that and we keep postponing that recognition. The longer we postpone coming into compliance with treaty rights, the more difficult it’s going to be.”
READ MORE LIKE THIS FROM CHANGING AMERICA