Tribes Point To Treaty Rights, Environmental Concerns In Opposing Massive Oil And Gas Project

Jan 8, 2021

Map of cultural resources, historic trails, and Native American concerns in the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Converse County Oil and Gas Project
Credit Bureau of Land Management

Several tribes have filed letters of protest against the recently approved Converse County Oil and Gas Project. The U.S. Interior Department signed off on the project at the end of last year; it allows for the drilling of 5,000 wells over the next decade by five operators.

The Oglala Sioux Tribe and the Great Plains Tribal Water Alliance, a non-profit corporation consisting of four federally-recognized Indian tribes, the Standing Rock Sioux, Oglala Sioux, Rosebud Sioux and Flandreau Santee Sioux tribes, filed protests before and after the project's approval.

The recent letters argue the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) failed to incorporate the tribe's comments and protests prior to the project's approval.

"We know that federal processes, and then big oil and big companies, a lot of times that's what they want is to just... check the boxes as quick as possible. So that extraction could continue - to be as quick as possible," said Doug Crow Ghost, chairman of the board for the Great Plains Tribal Water Alliance, a technical advisor for issues like water rights and water quality.

The letters raised concerns around the project's impacts on water quality, migratory birds, burial sites and traditional historic properties. They also raise how the project falls within treaty territory, under the Fort Laramie treaties of 1851 and 1868.

"The OST [Oglala Sioux Tribe] allege that the DEIS [draft Environmental Impact Statement] failed to adequately identify the environmental effects on OST and other tribes, their cultural, religious, historical-prehistoric resources, burials, and sacred sites," read the letter, given those resources are under Federal Trust Assets-trust resources and protected by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851.

Crow Ghost said his organization feels the BLM violated their rights, including water rights by saying they have no claim. Prior to the project's approval, the BLM said they resolved tribal concerns.

"We feel that we have incorporated their input and, through multiple rounds of tribal consultation, taking their standpoints into account as we completed this analysis and decision," said Courtney Whiteman, BLM Wyoming public affairs specialist.

She added the BLM held in-person meetings with Tribes interested in doing so to discuss issues.

Without concerns met, Crow Ghost said the Great Plains Tribal Water Alliance has met with lawyers and is discussing next steps. BLM's Whiteman, though, said the project is a done deal.

"Now, that we've issued that decision, this is pretty much cut and dry," she said.

Whiteman added there is room for protest as companies begin to propose specific wells, though. Crow Ghost said that's certainly an option.

"If it has to be, you know, individual well claims and appeals, then that's what it'll be," he said.

Crow Ghost added he wants the next administration to take a serious look at the final environmental analysis for the Converse County Oil and Gas Project and consider concerns over Tribal treaty rights.