Author: Erin Snyder, Goucher College ____________________________________________________________________________________
This year Thanksgiving, the purely American celebration of our colonial predecessors making peace and breaking bread with Native Americans, coincides timely with a recent Congressional decision. On November 18, the Senate voted to stop legislation that would have approved the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. The Keystone XL pipeline, an extension to an existing pipeline, would pump oil from Canada’s tar sands through the Midwest to a processing plant on Louisiana’s coast. This pipeline drew unprecedented amounts of media attention, mostly from the butting of heads between environmentalists and the oil industry (and by extension, Congressional Republicans). The Keystone XL pipeline, featuring both above ground and underground portions, threatens the Ogallala Aquifer (which supplies freshwater for a large amount of the Midwest), private landowners, and the natural habitat of the Midwest. Not to mention, it would perpetuate the United States’ unsustainable dependence on fossil fuels. Whether the U.S. gets its oil from Canada or Qatar, oil is oil and America’s oil addiction is slowly but surely destroying the planet.
How do fossil fuels relate to Thanksgiving, you ask? As opposition toward foreign oil dependence and acceptance of climate change grows, energy enterprises have turned to natural gas as an alternative energy source. Natural gas is obtained through hydraulic fracturing, colloquially known as fracking. And the newest target for fracking sites happens to be Native American reservations. Exploiting Native American land for America’s economic gain? Sounds familiar . . .
Fracking involves both vertical and horizontal drilling. Once the drill horizontally pierces the shale that houses the gas, a mixture of water, sediment, and undisclosed chemicals are pumped at extremely high pressures into the crack of the rock. The extreme pressure causes the central crack to splinter off, releasing natural gas to be taken back up by the drill’s system.
As illustrated by the info graphic, fracking uses copious amounts of water, which cannot be used afterward due to pollutants. This contaminated water then sits in unregulated pools, where the next rain could flush the polluted water into nearby waterways. Fracturing the shale and flushing this mysterious chemical mixture through the cracks in rocks also threatens groundwater; the chemicals and sand can easily leech into and ruin the pristine aquifers we use for drinking water.
Most of the U.S.’s natural gas deposits lie in the Marcellus Shale formation (as illustrated on the map), but pockets of natural gas deposits do exist throughout the nation. Drilling in the Marcellus Shale has caused a great deal of controversy, so profit-hungry businesses are looking for more discrete, less contentious sources. Native American reservations (in states such as North Dakota, South Dakota, and New Mexico) have become the most recent targets for drilling. According to the National Congress of American Indians, “about 25 percent of the nation’s onshore oil and gas reserves rest underneath tribal lands, but those lands account for roughly 5 percent of U.S. production.” Although this does not make up a huge portion of U.S.’s natural gas reserves, it is a significant amount for these reservations. Native American reservations are, more often than not, poorer and more economically stagnant than the rest of the nation. Just last year, fossil fuel royalties awarded to Native American tribes reached an unprecedented $971 million. Therefore, the lucrative option of selling land to oil and gas companies is very tempting. In fact, tribal governments often push for partnerships with energy companies, but their constituents are still unsure. Substantial environmental risks accompany the development of fracking. The President of the Apache nation expressed that she believes this “is still an issue, because whatever chemicals they are using are not disclosed.” Some Native American organizations, such as Last Real Indians (LRI) and Honor the Earth have even been pressuring tribal leaders to ban fracking projects altogether. Native American reservations often lack basic infrastructure (i.e. housing, sewage systems, roads); therefore, they would be even more susceptible to the negative environmental and social impacts of fracking (i.e. untreated wastewater, soil/land degradation, possible industrial accidents).
Whether or not the financial compensation these companies are offering is adequate, this is still a case of environmental exploitation. Fracking is relatively new technological process and some risks are still unknown. The chemicals used in the process, which are kept secret by companies, have been shown to contaminate water supplies, sometimes even making tap water flammable. If companies continue to target Native American land for profit, these companies must be honest about the environmental consequences that would effectively deplete the natural resources in these areas and degrade the quality and beauty of the land on which these tribes live and depend. This fall, it seems the biggest dilemma at America’s Thanksgiving dinner will not be whether to have apple or pumpkin pie, but rather if fracking’s economic benefits are worth more than the environmental quality of Native American land.