Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 16, 2012

The Blackfoot Indian versus fracking

Filed under: energy,indigenous,oil — louisproyect @ 3:26 pm

Today’s NY Times has an article on the divisions among the Blackfoot people in Browning, Montana over fracking.

It is an increasingly common sight for tribes across the West and Plains: Tourist spending has gone slack since the recession hit. American Indian casino revenues are stagnating just as tribal gambling faces new competition from online gambling and waves of new casinos. Oil and fracking are new lifelines.

One drilling rig on the Blackfeet reservation generated 49 jobs for tribal members — a substantial feat in a place where unemployment is as high as 70 percent. But as others watched the rigs rise, they wondered whether the tribe was making an irrevocable mistake.

“These are our mountains,” said Cheryl Little Dog, a recently elected member of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, the reservation’s governing body. “I look at what we have, and I think, why ruin it over an oil rig?”

Oil exploration here began in the 1920s, largely on the plains along the eastern edge of the reservation, but it died off in the early 1980s. Over the last four years, though, new fracking technologies and rising oil prices have lured the drillers back, and farther and farther west, to the mountains that border Glacier National Park.

Oil companies have leased out the drilling rights for a million of the reservation’s 1.5 million acres, land held by the tribe, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. They have drilled 30 exploratory wells this year alone, and are already engaged in fracking many of them, pumping a slurry of water, sand and chemicals to crack open underground rock beds to pry out the oil.

“It’ll change the lives of a lot of people,” said Grinnell Day Chief, the tribe’s oil and gas manager. “It’ll be a boost to everybody. There’s talk of a hotel coming up.”

Read full article

Facebook group for Blackfeet anti-fracking coalition

As it turns out, this is an Indian reservation I visited in the late 90s through connections I had made with Jim Craven, an economics professor of Blackfoot descent who was subscribed to PEN-L at the time. About three years after that trip I returned to the Blackfoot reservation in Alberta, Canada just north of Browning to participate in a tribunal on residential school abuse that Jim Craven had organized. Through my trips out west and through research on the Blackfoot I managed to learn quite a bit about their struggle and eventually wrote an article on “The Blackfoot and the Barbarian” that pretty much exemplifies my approach to indigenous issues as a Mariátegui disciple.

(I should mention that I have used the word Blackfoot rather than Blackfeet over the years mainly because of Jim Craven’s insistence that the latter term is racist. Frankly, I am not so sure whether the distinction is as important to the tribe as it was to Jim but as is generally the case I am happy to respect the views of a member of an oppressed nationality when it comes to matters such as this.)

In 1998 I wrote an article titled “Energy Tribes” that addresses the economic contradictions that led to fracking on the Browning reservation. I am reproducing it below in order to provide some insights into what is called commonly called environmental racism and that is felt particularly hard by indigenous peoples in the Americas.

Energy Tribes

One of the crowning ironies of the history of this racist, capitalist country is that Indian reservations today hold enormous quantities of coal, oil, gas and uranium. If the 19th century architects of genocide had been able to predict this startling outcome, they probably would have simply killed every last Indian in order to put a lock on future profits. The struggle for Indian control of these resources has turned out to be one of the sharpest struggles of the past 25 years.

What is the magnitude of these reserves? “Breaking the Iron Bonds,” by Marjane Ambler (U. of Kansas, 1990), lays out the numbers for the year 1974:

The Interior Department said thirty-three reservations had as much as 200 billion tons of coal, which represented as much as 30 percent of all the coal west of the Mississippi. Federal estimates of uranium holdings ranged from 16 percent to 37 percent of the nation’s total. The department said forty Indian reservations held reserves of 4.2 billion barrels of oil and 17.5 trillion cubic feet of gas–3 percent of the nation’s known reserves. Most of these minerals still lay underground; so even if the tribes had been politically able to operate as a cartel, they could not have influenced energy fuel prices. Nevertheless, they represented the largest mineral owners in the country outside the federal government and the railroads.

These reserves became the subject of intense interest in the early 1970s during the so-called energy crisis. Almost overnight, tribes who eked out a living as ranchers or farmers were receiving bids from some of the biggest and most avaricious companies in America. Two American Indians emerged as champions of tribal rights against the marauders. They sought to accurately measure the amount of energy reserves. They also had to figure out how to defend the development needs of the tribes against the interests of corporations who were merely out to make a quick profit. In other words, all corporations.

One of these was the Comanche LaDonna Harris, who was instrumental in the formation of Council of Energy Resource Tribes (CERT) in 1975, a coalition to protect Indian interests. Not coincidentally, she was Barry Commoner’s vice-presidential running mate on the Citizens Party ticket in 1980. Such was the racism of the radical movement that when her name used to come up that year, they referred to her as “Just some Indian woman.” That was enough to satisfy the curiosity of a brain-dead leftist movement that could not appreciate the importance of ecologists and American Indians coalescing. There is evidence that it still doesn’t.

Harris had founded Americans for Indian Opportunity (AIO) in order to promote tribal self-government. Concerned about disadvantageous contracts with energy companies, she hired 3 interns from Dartmouth University to review federal records. The results were earthshaking. Nobody had ever realized the magnitude of the potential wealth. She presented Federal Energy Administration (FEA) chief Frank Zerb with the evidence in the summer of 1975 and read him the riot act. “You can’t have an energy policy without Indians; collectively, they’re the biggest private owners of energy in the country.”

Another key figure was Chuck Thomas, a Cherokee who worked as an oil-field inspector for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). If Harris was instrumental in putting a spotlight on the existence of huge energy reserves, Thomas was critical in raising tribal awareness about the need to tightly control them. He figured out something was amiss on June 13, 1980 when he caught an oil truck leaving the Wind River Reservation without a permit. This led to a full-scale investigation and upgrade of the inspection and accounting system on the energy-rich reservations. Thomas was the right person to help put new training procedures into place. Before going to work for the USGS, he had worked in the oil fields for fifteen years as a roustabout and roughneck. He was plain-spoken about his qualifications. “I’m not a man of long words and big politics…I have a worm’s eye view of it (oil thefts) because I was the man in the field.” He had blunt advice for Indian youth who were interning with him: “Be suspicious and trust nothing or nobody.”

CERT played an important role in defending tribal interests during the energy boom years. The revenues that came from royalty payments from big corporations, while not eliminating Indian poverty, did play a role in tribal development. One of the most tangible results was the creation of the Blackfeet Tribal bank, the beneficiary of Jim Craven’s consultation services. The Blackfeet tribe derived 90 percent of its total income in 1985 from oil and gas royalties and taxes.

The emergence of a cartel-like formation like CERT scared the tribes’ enemies out of its wits. During the mid-1970s OPEC was the bogeyman of many Americans, rich and not-so-rich. The notion that Americans would have to pay top dollar for petroleum was shocking. It was one thing for Americans to have a monopoly on computer software, automobiles, weapons, medicine, etc., but it was another thing for the rest of the world to assert itself in this manner. All nations were equal, but some nations were more equal than others.

The Denver Post fretted over the emergence of CERT in a 1979 editorial:

Supposedly we are to pony up cheerfully so the noose of escalating energy prices can be tightened around our necks… The people who manipulate Indian policies are indulging in much nonsense…Admittedly, justice has not always been dispensed equitably. But is the sufferance of our national government–dedicated to tribal advancement [??!!]–that gives the tribes leeway to act with more independence than other Americans.

But limits there are. Imagine what would happen if some adviser persuaded a tribal group to sign a treaty with Libya which Colonel Quaddafy was to ship Russian missiles to the reservation to guarantee the tribe’s integrity.

These fears, which were largely a psychological projection of rapacious American capitalists on their victims, were heightened when CERT hired Ahmed Kooros as its chief economist. Kooros had served as Iran’s deputy minister of economics and oil under both the Shah and Khomeini.

The parallel with OPEC nations was of course overdrawn. The true relationship between the U.S. and the energy tribes was not unlike that which exists between it and oil-producing countries like Nigeria and Angola that have non-industrialized, financially weak economies. The possibility for exploitation is much greater. The producers do get royalties, but it comes at a price. The big corporations leave the underdeveloped countries in a state of ecological ruin while draining the life-blood of the nation. The relationship is like Dracula’s to his victims. Dracula might treat somebody to a good meal but afterwards the guest became a blood-pudding dessert.

The most dramatic instance of the social and environmental costs of energy development was the break in a tailing dam at the United Nuclear Corporation’s Church Rock, New Mexico uranium mill on July 16, 1979. (Tailings are the residue of uranium mining.) One hundred million tons of radioactive water spilled into the Rio Puerco River on the Navajo reservation and it took on a sickly yellow hue, like battery acid. Animals that stepped into the river developed sores on their legs and died almost immediately. For the next year Navajos could neither eat nor sell mutton, an economic mainstay of the tribe. For the next decade the Indians and other people living near the river could not use local water supplies for drinking or stock watering. Despite all the publicity surrounding 3-Mile Island, this was the worst nuclear plant accident in American history.

Another noteworthy example of the destructiveness of unregulated energy development is what happened at the Upper Missouri River Basin in the 1980s. The tribes of the Northern Plains felt the need to defend their long-term interests against some powerful energy corporations that were planning a huge coal gasification plant in Wyoming. The companies needed water from nearby states where Indians had ownership of the potential supply. The plant and ancillary energy development operations would require huge amounts of water. The only source was the nearby Yellowstone River, as important to the Northern Plains tribes as the Rio Puerco was to the Navajos.

The federal government was all for the diversion of water to the Wyoming mega-project. A formal request had come from the following companies: Peabody Coal, Gulf Oil, AMAX, Shell Oil, Exxon, Kerr-McGee, Western Energy Corporation, Consolidated Coal, ARCO, Conoco, Mobil and WESCO. How could the US turn down a request from such companies? After all, they bribe both parties to carry out their wishes.

Arrayed against the government and energy companies was a coalition of ranchers, environmentalists and Indians. Potential royalty payment to the tribes was not enough to placate them. Their relationship to the land and water, which had pastoral and spiritual dimensions, could not easily be priced. This in essence is the source of the conflict between the tribes and capitalist America, just as it is in other parts of the world. Last week 10,000 villagers occupied the construction site of a dam on the Narmada river in India. It would destroy their livelihood as well as strip the river of the sacred quality it held in their lives. The main beneficiaries of the dam would be wealthy farmers.

A final example will illustrate not only the conflicts between the corporations and the tribes, but within different tribes themselves. The power of the dollar is enormous. A big corporation will not be above pitting one group of Indians against another when it is seeking to advance its bottom line. Capitalists have been dividing and conquering for centuries. Since they are such a tiny percentage of the population, they are always seeking ways to weaken their potential victims.

I am referring here to the conflict between the Hopi and Navajo tribes over development in the Black Mesa region of New Mexico. This is an extremely complex problem that pits the development needs of the Hopi tribe against Navajo sheepherders. There are enormous profits at stake as the Peabody Coal Company has targeted this area for extensive development of coal and other energy resources. I will not even begin to try to arbitrate the rival claims of the two tribes, but refer to the Black Mesa Web Page for testimony from both sides in the dispute.

In a 1993 complaint to Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, the Navajos complained about the slurry line that transports approximately 5 million tons of coal each year from Black Mesa to Laughlin, Nevada. It was “the only instance in American history where coal has been transported with groundwater that represents the only source of drinking water for an Indian Tribe.” Since the Peabody Coal Company uses over a billion gallons of pristine drinking water from the Navajo-Aquifer, it is no surprise that a drought afflicted both the Hopi and Navajo reservations in 1996. Development comes at a cost.

As long as tribes insist on putting their own interests above other tribes, the capitalist will come out ahead. The capitalist has trained himself to do this. Cecil Rhodes perfected this art in Africa and was able to safeguard the interests of the mining companies while trampling on the rights of the tribal peoples. A recent PBS biography of the arch-imperialist showed how he did it You promise one tribe one thing as long as it will make war against the other. When the tribe is victorious and hands the spoils of war over to the British colonists, they simply find another tribe to enlist in their sordid fight.

There is absolutely no question that a higher level of American Indian unity is necessary to protect the economic and ecological rights of one and all. This is easier said than done because the tribes have histories that go back for hundreds of years. Some experts analyze the conflicts between Hopi and Navajo as having existed long before the appearance of Peabody. Their resolution would seem to be one of the most urgent tasks facing Indian peoples.

Economic necessity is driving Indian nationalism, a progressive force. The emergence of CERT shows that Indians can coalesce nationally when their interests as a people coincide. Despite a downturn in the energy sector of the economy through the 1980s and 90s, there is little question that it will reemerge with a vengeance. There are several factors that lie behind this.

First of all, energy companies have a double standard when it comes to pollution. They view Indian reservations and Third World countries as less deserving of the sort of protections that white American neighborhoods enjoy. The term for this is “environmental racism.” This is in part a reflection of the tendency of mainstream environmental organizations to fight harder for their own constituencies, which are largely white and middle-class. An oil spill in the ocean near Santa Monica aroused the affluent swimmers and surfers to action. A uranium spill in New Mexico hardly registers on mass consciousness, even when it is greater than what occurred at 3-Mile Island.

Energy companies have less latitude in white, middle-class or even working-class neighborhoods, so they go overseas to make the kind of profits they need to satisfy Wall Street. Chevron Oil had to clean up its act in the waters off Santa Monica, but throws caution to the wind in Nigeria. Nigeria, like large sections of New Mexico, is an environmental disaster. When poor people object to pollution, their “benefactors” argue that they have to make a choice between clean air and water, and jobs. The term for this is “greenmail.” Opposed to greenmail is the demand that all development take place under the strictest environmental guidelines. People must come before profits.

Another important consideration has to do with the potential importance of uranium mining in the near future. Concerns over global warming have spurred new interest in alternatives to oil and gas, greenhouse emission producing fuels. The more sensible approach would be to explore solar and wind energy, but nuclear power companies have been pressing their case. Their lobbyists were very active at the recent Kyoto Global Warming conference. East Asia is a potential market for their poisons. The Chinese and other Asian governments are planning to build 70 nuclear power plants in the next 25 years. A large portion of the fuel will certainly come from the Indian reservations, where more than 1/3 of potential reserves exists. The capitalist would love to mine uranium without caution in such places and sell it to Asian governments whose willingness to poison for profits equals their own.

The choice is not between poverty and pollution, although this is what the big corporations would have us believe. Development can take place without destroying rivers and soil in the process. Mining and oil-drilling can take place in a relatively safe manner, as long as certain guidelines are in place. The decision to mine or to drill for oil must first of all be made by the tribal peoples who will suffer the consequences both good and bad. Once they make this democratic decision, the oil, coal or uranium companies must respect the surrounding ecology.

How can the numerically small and impoverished Indian tribes force huge corporations like Peabody Coal or Exxon Oil to respect their economic and ecological demands? The answer is that they first must find ways to merge their tribal interests into a larger Indian collective. The American Indian nation would not abolish the local traditions of the tribe; it would simply present a united fist to those who would exploit it.

Closely related to this task is the need to internationalize the struggle. The American Indians on their own are a tiny percentage of the United States. However, they are part of an immense struggle that is going on world- wide against the same exact corporations who are attempting to foul their air, soil and water in the pursuit of profits. The Indians of the Amazon rainforest, the aborigines of Australia, New Guinea and New Zealand, the Odongi people in Nigeria are all in similar fights. There are signs that this type of internationalism is already beginning to take shape. North American Indians have offered solidarity to the peoples of Chiapas, who are defending themselves against a capitalist system that has more and more of a global character.

NAFTA and similar agreements accelerate the economic onslaught that has taking place within the borders of the United States, but displaces them into regions where protection of human rights are weaker. When a corporation faces a determined coalition of ranchers, environmentalists, trade unions and tribes within our borders, it has no recourse except to go places where the cops or army can openly repress such a coalition. This is what happens in Mexico, Guatemala and Brazil where the popular movement must deal with death squads and lesser forms of intimidation.

There is no other way to defend oneself from a marauding, profit-hungry, globe-trotting capitalist system except through international solidarity. The collapse of the East Asian economies makes the promise of prosperity through low wages and polluting industry even more hollow than it ever was. The only beneficiaries of low wages and pollution are the shareholders of the corporations who expect maximum profits. To satisfy these shareholders is to risk death from the poisons that the corporations spew in their name, since cutthroat competition will simply allow the investor to shift his money to a more profitable and anti-human corporation.

In my next post I will discuss American Indian beliefs about ecology, which are essential to understanding a way out of the madness of a capitalist system run amok.

(sources for this post include Marjane Ambler’s book and the Short History of Big Mountain – Black Mesa Web Site at http://www.aics.org/BM/bm.html)

1 Comment »

  1. Once again, thanks for your reasoned analyses of American Indian encounters with oil an gas interests both concerning the Blackfoot in Montana and Black Mesa in New Mexico. I just recently moved to Santa Fe from Texas, so I’m especially interested in the Black Mesa history. Also, my family had some (minor) mineral rights in southeastern Oklahoma near Atoka where a huge oil and gas reserve is newly available for exploitation using fracking and deep drilling. The history there is that, originally, citizens of the area incorporated to meet the oil and gas interests with some local clout, but eventually the public trust or community-based group was broken up into all the former individual owners of land or, in our case, owners of mineral rights only, leaving a few to prosper at others’ expense, not to mention breaking up any environmental concerns along with the solidarity of the community vis-a-vis the oil and gas interests.

    Comment by Jenell — August 17, 2012 @ 5:46 am

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