HEART BUTTE – Hundreds of black balls the size of grapefruits lie scattered and windblown in the weeds around White Calf drill pad 1-3.
Dan and Patty Geer prowl around with garbage bags, trying to finish up one of the weirder tasks in their bit of the oil exploration boom on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Their family-owned excavation business helped set up a gigantic water tank to hydraulically fracture an oil pocket some 5,000 feet beneath the rolling grassland. The black plastic balls, thousands of them, went in the tank to keep the water from freezing.
Once the fracking job was done, the drillers took down the portable walls of the water tank and collected the balls thigh-deep in mesh net bags. When the Geers came to collect them, they found some of the nets had torn. The wind blowing off Glacier National Park to the west did the rest.
“We were just going to shred them,” Dan Geer said. “But then somebody in Williston (North Dakota) wanted them back. Apparently, they’re worth $10,000. So now I’ve got to figure out how to get them into a grain truck.”
By a quirk of geology, the rich oil fields of the Williston Basin on the Montana-North Dakota border may also reach into the slate layers underneath Heart Butte and the rest of the Blackfeet Nation. For the past two years, oil prospectors have scurried across the 1.5 million-acre reservation, drilling and fracking test holes.
“We caught the wave last summer,” Patty Geer said. “We have a ranch by Duck Lake, but this is better money than ranching.”
“I don’t look forward to having another Williston, but it’s nice having the work,” Dan added. “If there wasn’t oil here, they wouldn’t be drilling here. I don’t know when it will go into production. It seems they drill a well, log it and cap it. They’re trying to put a field together.”
Carmen Bull Shoe Marceau just finished 20 years of paying for the land where White Calf 1-3 now sits. A Blackfeet tribal member, she wanted to return the land from privately owned fee status to tribal trust property. But she doesn’t own the mineral rights underneath the grass.
“My dad, Francis Bull Shoe, knew a geologist,” Marceau said at the Heart Butte Senior Center, where she’s the director. “The geologist told him, ‘One of these days, they’re going to put wells east of the reservation. Then they’ll go north and south.’ I’m 76 years old, and just what Dad said is starting to happen. He said he wouldn’t see it happen, but you folks probably will.”
In 2002, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated the reservation’s western edge could hold about 109 million barrels of oil and 8.6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. In 2010, the whole of Montana produced about 25.3 million barrels of oil.
But no one’s talking about what might be found on the Blackfeet Reservation. About 80 wells have been permitted in the last two years, and several drilling rigs bore new holes in different places every 60 days or so. While all but about 30,000 acres of the reservation are under exploration leases, the development stage remains a big dream away.
“There’ve been a couple of wells completed on the Blackfeet Reservation,” said Tom Richmond of the Montana Board of Oil and Gas. “I think neither of those wells met the expectations of the people that drilled them. Some more technology needs to be applied.”
Some of that technology was still parked on Marceau’s land earlier this month. Although the drilling derrick had already been torn down and moved on, a dozen low-riding water tankers awaited trucks to haul them to the next fracking site. Each has a capacity of 500 barrels, or 21,037 gallons of water or fracking fluid.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves drilling horizontally into an oil shale deposit, using explosive charges to shatter the surrounding rock formation, and then pumping in millions of gallons of fluid that hold the cracks open so oil can seep out.
Fracking fluid is a mixture of water, special sand and a wide variety of acids, surfactants and other friction-reducing compounds.
U.S. Bureau of Land Management petroleum engineer Don Judice said the results “have the consistency of snot,” even though the mix is typically 98 percent water.
About 70 percent of the fracking fluid remains in the bore hole. The remainder must be taken off the reservation, which does not have facilities to dispose of it. Most is injected into a couple of dry oil well holes in Pondera County.
Judice said while some parts of the country have reported damage to drinking water supplies near fracking operations, those were places where the drilling was 1,000 feet deep or less. Exploration along the Rocky Mountain Front typically takes place between 4,000 and 6,000 feet deep.
Montana law allows oil companies to keep their fracking chemical mixtures secret during the exploration phase. If a fracked well goes into production, it must disclose all the chemicals used in the fluids. Richmond said those disclosures are posted on the Board of Oil and Gas’ website, www.bogc.dnrc.mt.gov.
“The technology has to be customized for a particular area,” Richmond said. “For example, the fracking technology they tried out on the Bakken Formation in Montana between 2000 and 2008, when they took it to North Dakota, it didn’t work. And you have to ask, is there enough resource there to justify trying to re-customize the technology. No doubt, at the current price, there’s incentive to look for more oil.”
Crude oil currently sells for about $109 a barrel. That rings ironic in Heart Butte, which has a close-knit community but no gas station. The closest place to fill the tank sits 25 miles to the north or south, in Browning or Dupuyer.
“These things are happening overnight, and a lot of us are concerned about the effects,” said Tom Thompson, a former Blackfeet Tribal Council member and retired superintendent of the Browning Public School District. “Transparency is lacking, and community input is virtually non-existent.”
Phone messages to Blackfeet tribal authorities and federal Bureau of Indian Affairs officials seeking current information on reservation drilling were not returned over two days of calling. Thompson and Marceau said they’d had equally poor luck learning what was happening on their own land.
“There has been seismographic activity here since the mid-’50s,” Thompson said of the oil exploration work. “My grandparents lived by Heart Butte Mountain, and they talked about having to push a skein of oil off the pond just to get your bucket of water.”